June 15, 2012 By Dr. Wilna Meijer

Intellectual Vitality as the Ideal Educational Climate

meijerIn 2009, my book Tradition and Future of Islamic Education appeared (Münster: Waxmann). The contemporary Dutch Islam debate is permeated by a caricatured opposition between reason and religion, and this prompted me to write the book. As a philosopher of education, schooled in the modern western discipline of education, I was happy to discover several beautiful instances of profound educational insight in the thought of famous Muslim intellectuals, past and present.

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), for example, in his famous Muqaddimah. By the late Medieval days of Khaldun, Islam already had a history of centuries and had accumulated rich libraries of thought and interpretation. Anyone with an aspiration towards learnedness, has to face a study of decades. Besides the source texts of Islam, Qur’an and hadith, there exist libraries of scholarly grammatical, juridical and philosophical work, as well as text books, compendiums and handbooks, that an accomplished scholar had to be familiar with.

It is one of Ibn Khaldun’s concerns, that the handbooks and compendiums are difficult to grasp for beginners. Another important concern of his in association with these works is that they fail to feed the intellectual habit. Rather, they are more likely to destroy it. True scholarship is dependent on the prolonged and thorough study of elaborate, detailed works: ‘the (scholarly) habit that results from receiving instruction from brief handbooks, even when it is at its best and is not accompanied by any flaws, is inferior to the habits resulting from the study of more extensive and lengthy works. The latter contain a great amount of repetition and lengthiness, but both are useful for the acquisition of a perfect habit’ (Muqaddimah, Princeton University Press 1967, p415). The large number of available learned works, with their numerous differences of terminology and method are an obstacle that the student with an ambition to become ‘an accomplished scholar’ has to face and to overcome, so Ibn Khaldun’s argument runs. There is no short-cut to true learnedness.

The notion that the great number of handbooks and compendiums, though written in an attempt to resolve the problem of overload, can nevertheless itself be detrimental to education and study, is an educationally striking idea. Whenever the study of didactically concise versions threatens to take the place of the study of original works (lengthy, extensive, detailed, long-drawn-out works), in spite of the best of educational intentions, a thin veneer of Halbbildung or mock civilization takes the place of true education. The result is a superficial education based solely on ‘textbooks’, that is, ‘second-hand’ works with the character of summarising outlines. There is a real danger that students become textbooked rather than educated.

In the twentieth century such criticism is more often clearly and explicitly expressed, for instance by Fazlur Rahman (1919-1988). In his book Islam and Modernity (1982) Rahman laments the proliferation of commentaries and of ‘commentaries upon commentaries’, which have eclipsed the original works. Even ‘a vibrant and revolutionary religious document like the Qur’an’ was buried under the débris of grammar and rhetoric, instead of being read again and again, also in higher education after the kuttab.  According to Rahman the study of commentaries instead of original texts degenerated into hair-splitting and a preoccupation with irrelevant details, while fundamental questions were not being posed.

Rahman is one of the modernists who trace their own line of critical thought through to Egyptian reformer Muhammad ‘Abduh, at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. ‘Abduh had criticised the dominant role of memorizing in traditional religious education, from the elementary level of the kuttab to the highest level of Azhar. From his point of view this ought to be replaced by understanding and insight. He wanted to get rid of the rigidity of educational content and method. In order to become truly educational schooling, instead of a curious enclave, a museum of Medieval Islam, he thought it essential to keep the dialogue alive between the Islamic intellectual tradition, on the one hand, and modern western sciences, on the other. In the educational reform of the Azhar envisaged by ‘Abduh, two things went together: on the one hand the introduction of new subjects, even if these originate from another, modern scientific and secular tradition, and on the other hand, allowing students to study classic, original texts within the existing Islamic curriculum, instead of the usual second-hand explanations and commentaries of lesser minds.  The primary sources of Islam need to be dusted off.

Contemporary liberal Islamic thinkers renew Muhammad ‘Abduh’s plea to return to the original texts of Islam, with the Qur’an at the forefront. Nasr Abu Zayd (1943-2010) for example. He wishes to be rid of the orthodox Islamic restriction of the Qur’an to a text of law: why consider the part of the Qur’an, which has juridical relevance as its actual message?  By the traditionalist, past-oriented Islam, the entire universe ‘was divided into what is permitted and what is forbidden. That is a worldview which is dished out to the pupils from the first school year onwards, a worldview which divides life as a whole into permissible and forbidden acts’.  It means that the Qur’an is in need of re-reading, and must be freed ‘from all those cumulative layers of interpretations’.  Rahman advocates something similar. The original powers of expression of Islam, those of the Qur’an and Muhammad, must be brought back to life and retrieved from under the dust of the ‘conformities en deformities’ of the history of Islam.

Abu Zayd and Rahman wish to re-read, to re-think the Qur’an without limiting themselves to the margins of interpretative freedom which hadith and classic jurisprudence would grant them. This, by the way, definitely does not imply that they neglect and ignore Islamic tradition and intellectual history, quite to the contrary. Their knowledge of this history is excellent and they take it extremely seriously, although not as a normative, indicative framework, but rather as Wirkungsgeschichte in the sense of Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002)  , the Western hermeneutical philosopher, who is no stranger to either of these two Muslim intellectuals. In other words: they see it as a history of interpretation, not to be continued as a matter of course, but perhaps actually deserving awareness, critical reflection and possibly also dismantlement, in order to clear the way for a renewed reading and interpretation of the Qur’an. If Islam is considered a living tradition, also to be relevant to the new context of current western societies, then that should be able to follow from the re-reading and re-interpretation of primary sources.

Both Rahman and Abu Zayd, coming from and versed in the Islamic intellectual tradition, have seen potential in the hermeneutics of Gadamer. Although he also voiced some reservations as to Gadamer’s ideas, Rahman’s own historical-critical, interpretative approach to Qur’an and hadith is a classic example of what Gadamer meant by Wirkungsgeschichte or effective history: being conscious of the role of hadith as being a pair of glasses through which the Qur’an has been read and interpreted. This very consciousness might aid in clearing the air, making a re-reading of the Qur’an possible. The Qur’an would then be able to manifest itself with fresh vigour, new meaning and relevance: it would be an experience of truth with a historical nature because it touches the reader now. This should, however, not be taken as being subjective in the sense of being arbitrary: implying that each and every individual may project their own individual meaning onto it, and that every interpretation would have as much or as little right to being called true. I think Gadamer could only agree with the words at the end of Rahman’s introduction to Islam and Modernity, viz., that ‘the process of questioning and changing a tradition – in the interest of preserving or restoring its normative elements’ is to continue indefinitely’, because there is ‘no fixed or privileged point at which the predetermining effective history is immune from such questioning’.  His entire book can be read as an argument in favour of a lively and critical interchange about differences of interpretation in Islam: ‘To insist on absolute uniformity of interpretation is (…) neither possible nor desirable’.  There is an obvious link with education here. The atmosphere accompanying the search for meaning and understanding, in which differences of interpretation requiring critical reflection and intellectual exchange inevitably appear, is indeed an ideal climate for education.

1. This idea I have taken from Hamilton, who in turn took it from Grafton & Jardine. It plays an important role in my book on Islamic education. Cf. D. Hamilton, Learning about Education. An Unfinished Curriculum, Philadelphia, 1990; A. Grafton, & L. Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities. Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Europe, Cambridge (Mass.), 1986.
2. F. Rahman, Islam and Modernity. Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition, Chicago/London 1982, p36.
3.Rahman, Islam and Modernity, p66-67.
4.N.H. Abu Zayd, Mijn leven met de islam, Haarlem 2002, p58.
5. Abu Zayd, Mijn leven met de islam, p126.
6. Abu Zayd, Mijn leven met de islam, p79, p126.
7. His main work is from 1960: Wahrheit und Methode.
8. Rahman, Islam and Modernity, p11.
9. Rahman, Islam and Modernity, p144.

Dr. Wilna Meijer is the Associate Professor of the Philosophy of Education, University of Groningen, Netherlands. Her works include  Religious Education in a World of Religious Diversity and Fanaticism, Fundamentalism and the Promotion of Reflexivity in Religious Education. In K. Engebretson, M. de Souza, G. Durka & L. Gearon (Eds.), International Handbook of Inter-religious Education (Part 2) (pp. 729-741-). Dordrecht/Heidelberg/London/New York: Springer (ISBN 978-1-4020-9273-2) / w.a.j.meijer@rug.nl

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