ONE of the ideological fault lines within Muslim societies is the division between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ education. In some Muslim countries, such as Pakistan, religious education has been eulogised and secular education criticised as being in conflict with Islamic principles.
During the 18th-20th centuries, the colonising countries introduced secular education as a parallel schooling system in madressahs in order to introduce science and liberal arts. After independence, no country could do away with secular education because of its well-established roots and advantages in the process of ‘modernisation’ of their societies. People have already tasted the fruits of modern inventions. Modern gadgets were mostly invented and developed through a liberal science and arts education, not through religious learning.
Many advanced countries retain religious education, promoted by communities without any state hindrance, in many cases with state support (as in the UK). In each country there are different policies towards religious education, but basic schooling has been made compulsory for all children.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, an increasing number of Muslims were seen to favour secular education as they admitted their children to educational institutes not only in their own countries but also overseas so that they could obtain higher education in academically advanced countries. Even today a great number of people are going abroad for both secular and religious education, without seeing secular education as inimical to their faith.
The Quran commands us to reflect on nature.
However, the more traditional-minded religious leaders, teachers and people in many Muslim societies do not favour secular education, and have made every attempt to speak against it because of their misgivings. In the last two to three decades, in many Muslim societies anti-secular education groups, together with many ideologically motivated people, have resisted secular education, to the extent of destroying many schools (not madressahs) in the areas they exercised influence over, for example in parts of Pakistan and Nigeria.
Interestingly, none of these groups have renounced any of the modern fruits of secular education; in fact they are some of the most ardent users of inventions such as mobile phones, weapons, communication equipment, including computers etc, none of which have been invented within the traditional religious education system.
Since the beginning of the ‘modern’ age, many countries have tried to separate the religious and secular realms at the state level. This has helped them deal with societal problems.
Increasingly, the state has been made ‘secular’ to develop a more cosmopolitan playing field for all its citizens, rather than favouring one or another religion or sect, which in many Muslim countries is today a major issue. With this split came the ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ education bifurcation.
This created an impression that studying sacred texts is ‘religious’ education and studying nature and all such disciplines dealing with research-based knowledge and modern sciences is ‘secular’. This engendered a fatal misunderstanding in the minds of Muslims about secular education.
The term ‘religious education’ may be used to mean, among other things, a process of education in which learners are helped to develop knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be able to study religion (deen) in its widest sense. Since deen in Islam encompasses all spheres of life, deeni ta’leem or religious education would practically encompass all spheres of life.
If we read the Quran closely, we cannot miss this point. The Quran commands us to reflect on nature and everything it contains (3:191-2), therefore, this and similar numerous verses require us to reflect on all creation as God’s signs (aayaat). Hence, whatever is studied in secular education is a perfectly legitimate area of religious education because subjects in secular education study man and the universe using scientific tools.
We need to appreciate that religious education is not limited only to the reading and memorisation of the imperatives (ahkamaat) of the sacred texts. It also includes the exploration of the universe, producing new knowledge for the betterment of human life.
We need, therefore, to revisit our notions of religious education as only textual study and memorisation, and understand the spirit of the Quran that requires us to reflect on the entire universe. Getting religious education means reflecting on the word of God as much as the work of God.
The artificial dichotomy between religious and secular education must come to an end. Some of the most useful sciences today that have brought so many blessings to human societies are the result of endeavours which generally are studied in the realm of ‘secular’ education. We need both, not just one; therefore, our younger generation must get the best of both realms of knowledge and wisdom.
The writer teaches Histories and Cultures of Muslim Societies at a private university in Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2014