Muslims must demolish the wall that separates religious from secular education

Written by Muhammad Yunus | Published on: October 31, 2017

What has happened in the intellectual realm of Islam over the last few centuries is just the reverse of what Islam saw during the half a millennium of the Abbasid period.

rown Hills madrasa highlights what can be achieved with training and good community ties. All staff are CRB-checked and corporal punishment is prohibited. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian
Image Courtesy: David Sillitoe for the Guardian

It is well known that Islamic civilization had seen phenomenal advancement of knowledge during the Abbasid Period (roughly mid-8th to mid-13thcentury) - known as its Golden era. The Muslims drew on the resources that came to their hands – the Greco-Roman heritage and the scholars of other religions who were either native citizens or gravitated to Baghdad from different parts of the world to study universal sciences and fields of knowledge that were forbidden in their lands. Thus, they inaugurated and sustained an intellectual revolution that is captured in these words by two of the most eminent scholars of this era:

“Islam, which is only half a dozen centuries younger than Christianity, created a long and brilliant civilization, which is responsible for much of the way we are today. … When a few medieval monks were desperately trying to preserve what little they knew of Greco-Roman civilization, academies and universities flourished in the splendid cities of the Muslim lands”– Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, Islam, Empire of Faith, BBC Series, UK 2001, p. 11.

“Science is the most momentous contribution of Arab [Muslim] civilization to the modern world; but its fruits were slow in ripening. Not until long after Moorish [Islamic] culture had sunk back into darkness did the giant to which it had given birth, rise to its might. – Robert Briffault (1867-1948), Making of Humanity, p. 202.

With this summary introduction to Islam’s role in the advancement of universal knowledge, we come to the caption of this article that speaks for itself.

What has happened in the intellectual realm of Islam over the last few centuries is just the reverse of what Islam saw during the half a millennium of the Abbasid period. The historical background to this retrogression can be summed up as follows:

The surrender of Baghdad (1258 AD), the capital of the pan-Islamic Caliphate to the Mongol forces saw, apart from the gruesome massacre of its inhabitants, total eradication of its intellectual resources. The vast Abbasid libraries were burnt to ashes and the House of Wisdom -the unrivalled international center of learning of the era was destroyed. The ensuing centuries (14th – 17th) saw an explosive outburst of intellectual activity and free thinking in Europe that was driven by use of reason and thirst for Enlightenment and knowledge – known as ‘renaissance.’ This resulted in phenomenal growth in literary, artistic, philosophical, intellectual, commercial and military fields. This, in the ensuing centuries (18th-20th) ushered Europe into an era of great inventions and discoveries, proliferation of experimental research; exploitation of the forces of nature, and conversion of raw materials into an endless array of products in increasingly efficient and automated plants culminating in the modern urbanized industrialized world that is light-years ahead of the medieval ages.

As Europe was availing the fruits of its advancement and transforming its cold, dark and ramshackle villages into shining imageries of paradise (in the words of poet Laureate Muhammad Iqbal) and dotting its towns and cities with splendid museums, libraries, hospitals, universities, and rows upon rows of picturesque residential houses complete with all amenities – gardens, parks, shopping arcades, pharmacies, community centers – among other things, the orthodox Ulema remained in a state of denial and declared all scientific and civilisational advancement of Europe as the handiwork of Shaytan.

Accordingly, they divided the domain of knowledge between worldly and religious, forbade the learning of all European languages and abhorred all scientific and technological knowledge and advancement. Their hostility against the so called European knowledge was so intense that among other things, they burnt down an observatory in Turkey in 1580 - just a year after its erection, and closed down the first printing press in the Islamic world in the same city in 1745. Even as recently as the later part of the nineteenth century, the Ulema in British India fought tooth and nail against the establishment of a modern university by Syed Ahmed. Ironically, to this day Muslims are bogged down with a religious education curriculum that is centered round the secondary sources of Islam rooted and stagnated in the medieval ages and often treat universal sciences in the sidelines.

This division of knowledge between Scientific/ secular and religious is nothing short of a denial to probe the ‘Signs of God’ as repeatedly invoked in the Qur’an. There are verses that speak about the movement of heavenly bodies in their orbits (21:33, 31:29, 39:5), water cycle (2:164), embryonic development in a woman’s womb (23:12-14), immiscibility of soft and saline streams of water (25:53, 27:61, 55:19), reduction in oxygen content of air at higher altitudes (6:125), graduated darkness in ocean depth (24:40) for example – that simply cannot be understood without scientific knowledge.

Besides, God alone is the source of all knowledge and it was in this very spirit that the Muslims explored and advanced all prevalent branches of knowledge during their golden era (Abbasid period) drawing freely on non-Muslim sources. So dismissing scientific or secular knowledge in later centuries was a suicidal retrogression that gradually eroded the foundations of Islamic civilization, conduced to its colonization, and in the post-colonial era, rendered it politically weak, turbulent and unstable, and educationally and industrially backward - and with turn of events in this era, a potential breeding ground of terror, violent sectarianism and extremism. In the words of Altaf Hussain Hali, the famous poet and thinker of British India – ‘If one has to see a nation’s downfall exceeding all limits – it is Islam’s incapability to rise after its fall,” (translated from Urdu).

Hence, to stem the tide of Islam’s continuing decline, there is an urgent need to treat the pursuit of all universal sciences and knowledge as part of God’s trust to humanity This is to be accomplished by incorporating all branches of universal, secular and scientific knowledge in the Islamic religious schools (madrasas), so that those graduating from these schools should qualify to join the secular academic world and become doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants, scientists and professionals in other fields and thus reinvigorate the foundations of Islamic civilization. The vast theological content of madrasa curriculum that is rooted in the medieval ages can be reduced to one core ‘religious’ subject covering the universal dimensions of Qur’anic message and some social works (community service) –  for, to be a good Muslim, a growing school student does not need any knowledge of the secondary sources of Islam as taught in the madrasas - other than familiarity with the Pillars of Faith that he acquires at home or in the local mosque even without going to any school. However, as Islam’s secondary sources, notably the hadith is of highly technical – having evolved more than a thousand years ago, “it should be reserved for enlightened specialists who have attained sufficient maturity, knowledge, and training to distinguish between weak and reliable Hadith, and not to confuse them with the Word of God.” - Essential Message of Islam, p. 363

Let this short article be an eye opener for the Custodians of Islamic Faith who play a decisive role in deciding the curriculum of the madrasas world-wide.

Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.

Courtesy: New Age Islam