Defining Islamic Education:

This article explores use of several terms that signify Islam, and provides guidelines to
clarify their use in internal and external discourses. Building on this foundation, the
article delineates a typology of Islamic education and their associated institutions. This
enhances understanding of important conceptual differences that hinge upon subtle
variations of language as in the distinction between education of Muslims and for
Muslims, and between teaching Islam and teaching about Islam. The article then seeks to
elucidate a theoretical conception of “Islamic education,” that takes into consideration
Islamic scripture and Prophetic statements, along with commonly-held approaches to
education in Muslim history. The article concludes that key motivations and
characteristics of a holistic and purposeful education program are shared between
Islamic and Western traditions, a phenomenon partially explained by the shared and
cumulative transmission of educational values and methods from classical times until
the present.

The political, economic and social effects of globalization are varied, but they certainly
are indicative of our attempt as human beings to define and understand our place in the
world. As regions and cultures come into contact with one another, it is often difficult
for people to recognize parallel ideas, values, and institutions in other societies. It is
much easier to recognize differences and to imagine that they represent an unbridgeable
distance from what is familiar. Despite trends towards global interdependence,
seemingly inexorable differences continue to be underlined among regions and groups
through the use of signifiers that create distance. “Islamic” is a term that has been used
as one such signifier. In particular, the word has often served as an adjective in everyday
speech that neatly partitions off familiar terms from normalcy and transforms them into
unreachable, alien concepts.
Within discourse about Islam and Muslims in the United States and abroad, the term,
Islamic, is attached to a wide range of phenomena. Muslims use the term to refer to what
relates to Islamic teachings or institutions, but Muslims and non-Muslims alike
frequently use the adjective, Islamic, to elevate cultural expressions to the position of
normative or consummate institutions or practices. Poorly nuanced use of the term,
Islamic, among public commentators often fails to make any distinction between that
which pertains directly to Islam and its doctrines, and actions its adherents perform in
the cultural or social realm. Thus terms used to signify Islam and Muslims lack precision
when used by both Muslims and others in public discourse.

To prevent the utter misunderstandings that can lead to the mischaracterization and
even demonization of Muslims, these terms need to be explored and clarified. In the
wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001, public discourse in the United States about
Islam has been especially prominent, aimed either at increasing understanding, or
toward eliminating any positive associations with the world religion espoused by
roughly one fifth of humanity, including at least five million Americans. Speculation
and policy by pundits and politicians have targeted “Islamic education” as a possible
“cause” of so-called “Islamic radicalism” or “Islamic terrorism.” Accordingly, various
recommendations and measures have been contemplated to reform Islamic education in
the United States and overseas. At a minimum, public discussion should build on a
foundation of accuracy and differentiated discourse, since attempts to reform what is
poorly understood are bound to fail or backfire.

Focusing on the American context, the purpose of this article is 1) to explore
terminology related to Islam and provide guidelines to clarify its use in internal and
external discourses; 2) to chart out a typology of expressions of Islamic education in
various institutions; 3) to develop more accurate definitions that can help to bridge
differences between public discourses about Islamic education among Americans and
among Muslims; and 4) to illuminate concepts of education that are associated with
Islam and Muslim educational traditions and to identify parallels with concepts that
have also been associated with Western educational and cultural values.

Coming to Terms: Islam, Islamic, and Muslim
A common problem with informative materials related to Islam is incorrect or
inconsistent use of terminology, in particular use of Islam as the name of the religion,
Islamic as an adjective, and Muslim as a noun or adjective.
Islam is the name of the religion, whose first prophet was Adam, and whose final
prophet was Muhammad; it means a state of peace achieved through surrender to God.
Muslim is used for an adherent of the Islamic faith. Writers and commentators have
created much misunderstanding by confusing adjectival expressions concerning Islam.
The term Islamic is accurately applied only to that which pertains directly to the faith
and its doctrines (such as Islamic values, principles and beliefs, Islamic worship, Islamic
law). The term Islam connotes the faith as an ideal. The core Islamic sources of Qur’an
and Sunnah (the words and deeds of Muhammad transmitted through the Hadith
literature) provide knowledge of this realm. One may examine the faith’s constructs,
interpret its teachings and practices; however, one ought not to describe a person or any
historical phenomenon as Islamic.
To illustrate the problems in usage, consider seemingly benign formulations like
“Islamic women,” “Islamic populations,” or “Islamic countries,” when Muslim women,
populations or countries are indicated. When historical phenomenon and cultural
practice diverge from the faith’s teachings, designating something as Islamic becomes
very problematic. Doing so propels the idea of Muslims as a monolithic and
homogenous group acting purely in religious terms. It also masks cultural and social
differences, and occludes secular and historical influences. At their worst, such incorrect
adjectival constructions produce oxymorons such as “Islamic terrorists” and “Islamic
extremists,” in contrast to the basic definition of Islam, the stipulations of Islamic Law

against wanton violence and extremism in religious interpretation, and the commonlyheld ideals of Muslims. [1] The simplest solution is to use Islam and Islamic solely for what pertains to the religion,
and to use Muslim judiciously as an adjective to denote the works and acts of Muslims
and their institutions (such as Muslim populations, Muslim governments, countries or
civilization, Muslim art). Use of the term, Muslim, however, leaves out the important
roles played by the many non-Muslims living in Muslim majority countries to the
present day, and also discounts political and cultural movements that are avowedly
secular in thrust, and designates them with the name of the majority religion. As for
pejorative uses of the signifier, “Muslim extremist” is preferable to Islamic extremist,
since it reflects at minimum self-identification by the person described, but does not
malign the religion to the same degree. Extremism is not a truly Muslim attribute, since
Islam prescribes moderation in all things. [2]

Understanding the term, Muslim, as an aspiration to achieving peace through surrender
to God means that by definition when one violates clear Islamic teachings and has
departed from submission to God. Acts in this world, whether consciously undertaken
in the belief that they are godly, may nonetheless be unacceptable in the eyes of God.
When Muslims condemn terrorism based on clear Islamic teachings about the sanctity of
human life and the immunity of unarmed civilians from combat, they are affirming the
exclusion of such acts from the realm of sanctioned, or Islamic, behavior. Such acts are
not Islamic; they violate the obligation to obey God’s teachings—they are “unIslamic.” [3

According to Islamic teachings, the final arbiter of meaning is God, and any
interpretation of Islam by human beings is necessarily imperfect. [4] Persons, cultural
artifacts and institutions may be derived from and informed by Islamic precepts to one
degree or other, but cultural and ideological influences may or may not align with
Islamic principles, and may often contradict them. In short, human acts and constructs
fall short of being purely Islamic, and therefore ought not to be denoted as such.

Towards a Typology of Islamic Education
The generic term, Islamic education, can mean many things. Therefore, it is necessary to
differentiate among the diverse institutions that engage in education related to Islam,
particularly in the United States. In order to achieve some precision, a preposition
should be employed to make a meaningful phrase describing a type of educational
activity and its objective. Then, elements of a typology emerge, shedding light on the
institutions that carry out forms of education and the goals of each effort. In brief, we
can identify four types of educational activity: education of Muslims in their Islamic
faith; education for Muslims which includes the religious and secular disciplines;
education about Islam for those who are not Muslim; and education in an Islamic spirit
and tradition. The following sections describe three types of ongoing educational
activities and institutions present in the United States, while the fourth type illuminates
some traditional concepts of Islamic education.

Education of Muslims

In its most literal sense, Islamic education can refer to efforts by the Muslim community
to educate its own, to pass along the heritage of Islamic knowledge, first and foremost
through its primary sources, the Qur’an and the Sunnah. This education of Muslims
might take place in mosques, schools or universities, and other organizations established
by Muslims over the centuries. In the U.S., boys and girls and adult males and females
are served by this type of Islamic education. [5] While such education takes as its subject
Islam, it might not be fairly labeled “Islamic,” since Muslims’ efforts may likely fall short
of the ideals and principles of Islam. For example, some institutions may teach
constructive interaction of minority Muslim communities with other faith communities,
while others practice a more isolationist position. Historically, one might explain
positions along this spectrum by studying the degree of pressure from the surrounding
society, such as suppression of religion under Soviet domination, the aftermath of the
Reconquista on Morisco populations in Spain, or minority religious life under U.S. first
amendment constitutional guarantees. In the American context, recent Muslim
immigrants may differ from second- or third-generation American Muslims or
“indigenous” American converts in their educational efforts.

In general, these efforts can more accurately be categorized as “Muslim education.”
Recent studies by Georgetown University’s Muslims in the American Public Square
project, Hartford Theological Seminary’s mosque survey, and the Council on American
Islamic Relations indicate that there are at least 1209 mosques ( masjid, pl. masajid ) in
the United States, virtually all of which provide a program of religious instruction for
adults and/or children, and 20% of mosques are associated with or sponsor full-time
schools (Bagby, Perl, and Froeble, 2001; Khalidi, 2000; Haddad, 1997). Many mosques
conduct Saturday schools, weekend study circles, and after-school programs. Available
instructional time confines these programs to the basic–some would say the minimum
necessary to enable students to understand Islamic principles and be able to carry out
the core practices of the Islamic faith–the Five Pillars. Such programs teach the Qur’an,
its meaning and recitation, Islamic beliefs and practices, and at least a minimal level of
Arabic language for worship. Some such programs are more successful at reinforcing the
importance of family in cultural transmission and social support for members of the
faith (Ismail, 2003). In their objectives and activities, mosque programs generally
correspond to weekend religious instruction conducted in American churches,
synagogues and temples.

Education for Muslims
Full-time Muslim schools fill the category of education for Muslims, because they
embrace a much broader enterprise than mosque lectures, after-school programs and
weekend schools. These institutions are often described by Muslims as Islamic schools
where educators deliver both “secular” and Islamic education. More accurately, these
institutions may be considered Muslim schools, indicating the goal of living up to the
standards of Islam, rather than implying its achievement. Many Muslim schools have
names (often in Arabic) that evoke goals and aspirations, such as the common “Light” (
al-Nur ), “Faith” ( al-Iman ) and “Guidance” ( al-Huda ), or namesakes of well-known
figures in Muslim history. There are currently at least 112 Muslim schools that provide
primary, elementary, middle and/or high school for Muslim children in the United
States (Islamic Schools League, 2004). A few non-Muslim children also attend these
institutions, and as some schools acquire reputations for educational excellence, their
numbers will likely grow. The majority of Muslim schools serve primary grades K-6, but
numerous K-8 schools and a handful of high schools exist. In addition to these
institutions, a growing number of Muslim parents home-school their children, like their
counterparts in other religious and even secular communities in the U.S. today (Muslim
Home School Network and Resource, 2004).

To evaluate what Islamic education for Muslims means, it is necessary to understand the
curriculum in such schools. To meet the demands of parents who pay tuition, Muslim
full-time schools generally adhere quite closely to local and state public school curricula.
In the core academic subjects, the same commercially produced textbooks for public
schools are used in Muslim school classrooms. To these standard programs in core
subjects, they add instruction in Qur’anic recitation and memorization, basic Islamic
beliefs and practices, and usually Arabic language (but sometimes Urdu or Farsi). In
these subjects, neither the curriculum nor the textbooks have been standardized. To the
contrary, while formal studies have not yet been prepared, over twenty years of
discussion among Muslim educators working in various types of schools indicates that
achieving standardization is one of their greatest instructional challenges. This is
compounded by the fact that curriculum materials related to teaching about Islam
produced overseas–even for Arabic language studies–are viewed as irrelevant or
unsuited to young students’ lives and culture in the U.S. and Europe (Tauhidi, 2001; Safi,
1999). In teaching the Qur’an, for example, many U.S. Muslim schools increasingly
emphasize that students learn the meaning of passages in translation and the reasons
behind Islamic practices, rather than simply memorizing the words and practices in
Arabic without regard for understanding. Students also tend to be exposed to a greater
range of opinion on details of Islamic practice based on scholarship within several
Muslim schools of law, unlike in most countries where one particular legal school
predominates among Muslims. Muslim educators in the U.S. widely believe that, in
order for the youth to live as Muslims in a free society that places few outward
constraints on individual behavior, students must truly understand and internalize
Islam’s principles, beliefs and practices, and learn how to apply them in contemporary
society. Like other parochial schools in the American tradition of private schools,
Muslim schools carrying out education for Muslims strive to achieve educational
excellence, but also to integrate religious values into instruction across the curriculum
and through service-learning in the family, the school and the community.

Education about Islam

Education about Islam in American school textbooks has evolved over the past two and
a half decades. Western Civilization textbooks and curricula that used to teach early
versions of “world history” in the schools often confined coverage of Islam to
background information on events in European history, such as the Crusades, the fall of
Constantinople, or the Reconquista. Accounts of modern Muslim societies invariably fell
under the rubric of the Middle East, and almost exclusively figured in coverage of the
Arab-Israeli issue. Beyond that, students received little more than cursory glances at the
desert landscape and coverage of Muslim societies placing Islam at the center of a
traditional/modern dichotomy (i.e. only societies that follow a Western developmental
course are “modern”). Early textbook chapters were fraught with inaccuracies and
inconsistencies, and demonstrated a tendency to take western orientalist explanations of
Islam and the history and societies of Muslims at face value, long after academic
scholarship of Islam had moved beyond these presumptions. The lag in applying
contemporary scholarship to the writing of world history textbooks seriously hampered
coverage of Islam and Muslims since such coverage began to be included in the late
1980s. However, efforts over the past decade have resulted in considerable improvement
(Douglass and Dunn, 2001).

For two decades, teaching about world religions has been part of the public school
curriculum, most prominently in social studies. Curriculum reform in history helped
restore the place of teaching about religion in U.S. studies, and expanded the coverage of
major world religions, including Islam, in world geography and history classes. In 2000,
the Council on Islamic Education co-published with the Freedom Forum First
Amendment Center the study Teaching about Religion in National and State Social
Studies Standards (Douglass, 2000). The result of nearly a decade of curriculum study, it
traced the development of national and state standards across the U.S., demonstrating
widespread inclusion of study about religion and awareness of the constitutional
framework underpinning this inclusion. The study concluded that teaching about
religions was required by the newly developed state standards documents, at a wide
variety of grade levels.

The most significant factor in promoting teaching about religions in the public schools
has been dissemination of the First Amendment Center guidelines for teaching about
religion in a constitutionally sound manner (Haynes and Thomas, 2002). These
guidelines have increased teachers’ comfort level, although teacher training has been
inconsistent from system to system and state to state. Recent lawsuits concerning
teaching about Islam illustrate that teachers are not necessarily universally familiar with
the First Amendment Center guidelines. Though the guidelines have been disseminated
to every school principal by the U.S. Department of Education under the Clinton
administration, they may not have left their desks or otherwise reached the teachers who
would implement them.

General adherence to the guidelines and their implementation in textbook development
has done more than anything else to improve the accuracy of textbook depictions of the
basic beliefs and practices, origin stories and subsequent cultural and institutional
history of various religions. Chief among these changes is the consistent use of
attributive phrases, combined with greater factual accuracy. In the past, teachers
uncomfortable with the topic of religion would simply omit the topic from their lesson
plans. Along with the guidelines, the promulgation of state standards for history as a
core subject have made such major topics as world religions mandatory in the schools,
especially where accountability testing is practiced. Even where it is not, the curriculum
has benefited from additional clarity in terms of what students are to learn (Douglass,

Following state curriculum mandates, now subject to testing in many states, major
textbook publishers have included content on religion in the books they submit for
adoption to the states’ public school systems. In world history and geography textbooks,

Islam takes its place among historical accounts of all major world religions, including
Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Confucianism, Daoism and Shintoism and
some indigenous traditions. Coverage of Islam includes the origins story, featuring the
life of Muhammad and the growth of the early Muslim community, the political
succession and rapid conquests after Muhammad’s death, and the development of
Muslim civilization to the Ottoman period. Accounts of twentieth century history
include religious movements, including those in Muslim societies, and coverage of the
Middle East includes discussions of the role of religion in family and social life
(Douglass, 2000). Both elementary and secondary textbooks for U.S. history often
mention the diversity of the U.S. population, and might include mention of Muslims.
Coverage of the Middle East, Asia and Africa in world geography textbooks often
includes Islam and Muslim history. [6]

Inauthentic or inaccurate teaching about Islam is not, in fact, education about Islam at
all. It may be education about the western study of Islam, or education about a
particular textbook writer’s or publisher’s view of Islam or of what the writer thinks
students should be permitted to know. Some textbooks, in fact, have taken a secular
stance about religions in general, portraying religions as purely sociological phenomena
without addressing faith practitioners’ views about revelation and prophethood. In
other words, the veracity of faith in general can be placed in question by the textbook
because it was portrayed as merely a human invention or construct (Douglass, 2000).
According to the guidelines for teaching about religion, in contrast, such a position is not
neutral at all, but represents a particular, secular philosophical position on religion.
Teaching about religion—whether Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or
Hinduism—should portray the basic tenets of the faith as their adherents understand
them, using attributive language in every instance: Christians believe that…; Muslims
believe that…etc. Furthermore, textbooks often use inaccurate information or omit
information for the sake of simplicity. For example, belief in the Biblical prophets Adam,
Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus is a fundamental tenet of Islam, but textbooks often
omitted this information in favor of the “simplicity” of making Muhammad the sole
prophet and founder of Islam. Reluctance to mention the central role of Abraham in
Islamic beliefs is a violation of this principle of attributed accuracy, since without
Abraham, Islamic beliefs and practice cannot be adequately understood. Overall,
however, textbook editors’ adherence to the principle of authenticity, fairness and
balance has improved over the past decade or so, resulting in greater accuracy in
textbook accounts of Islam as well as other faiths (Douglass, 1998).

Popular media, the World Wide Web, and academia
A systematic analysis of corporate television, radio, print and electronic media coverage
on Islam is beyond this article’s scope, but it is necessary to mention the media in
connection with education about Islam because it is so influential in forming public
opinion in the U.S. and abroad. Since September 11, 2001, a paroxysm of media
“versions” of Islam, interpretations of certain Qur’an verses, and attempts to define what
Islam “is” or “should be” have appeared in various media. Coverage runs the gamut
from extreme denigration of Islam and Muslims to balanced, fair and thorough coverage
of Islam as a faith, and of Muslims in history and contemporary societies.

Among the new media are web sites developed by organizations, interest groups and
private individuals. Unlike “ecumenical” sites such as, such efforts include
web sites designed to discourage people from embracing Islam, or to encourage
formation of negative attitudes about Islam and Muslims, sometimes to the point of
hate-mongering. At the same time, Muslims have developed various web sites, some
intended merely to inform, others to propagate Islam by inviting others to learn about it,
and still others to refute polemics and accusations aimed at Islam and Muslims. Many of
these web sites tailor their approach to Western audiences. Other sites maintained by
Muslims lay bare various internal discourses among Muslims, representing a range from
so-called “progressive” Muslim groups to traditionalists to extremist mouthpieces.

For decades, and with increasing intensity since September 11, 2001, academic
specialists, journalists and religious figures have produced hundreds of books
purporting to educate the public about Islam. Their authors often appear in electronic
media as experts as well. The importance of this discourse–Muslim and non-Muslim–is
underlined by its volume and prominence, and by the way in which its ideas circulate in
print, over the airwaves, and on the Internet, flowing from one format into another. Such
a discourse about a world religion and its scripture, beliefs, practices and the views and
actions of its adherents and purported adherents, is surely unprecedented in scale.

A Theoretical Conception of Islamic Education
Education in the Islamic spirit is the last but most important category in this typology,
because it is often the first meaning readers attribute to the phrase, Islamic education.
Unfortunately, because of the swirl of media attention focused on education for and of
Muslims, the term can connote for some people a concept of education so limited as to
imply that Islamic education omits secular knowledge in favor of religious beliefs, and
may be equated with the dissemination of ignorance. Some might assume that Islamic
education might be shorthand for teaching hatred of “the West” or the United States. The
concept of Islamic education cannot be reduced to such stereotypes, nor is it limited to
rigid transmittal of 1400 year-old lifeways from ancient Arabia. Islamic education is
certainly part of a historical tradition, but it is not the polar opposite of modernity,
democracy or Western values. Stereotypes aside, such views of Islam and learning also
result from over-identification of religious teachings per se with the historical/cultural
context of Church/science conflicts known in the Western educational tradition, which
are mistakenly assumed to be universal to human experience. The following paragraphs
discuss some key terms and concepts from Islamic and Arabic terminology that are
historically and currently associated with education in the Muslim tradition.

Education is the first duty of a Muslim, male or female. [7] Knowledge of God is equated
with the process of learning and teaching. The well-documented process of preserving
Islamic scripture demonstrates the early emergence of a literate tradition and its
transmission among Muslims as a social priority. It was incumbent upon the Muslim
community from the beginning to commit the words of God and the teachings of
Muhammad to memory and to writing. Among the least examined statements in
academic literature is the notion that the Qur’an was collected from fragments after
Muhammad’s death. From the earliest period, recitation of the revealed portions of the
Qur’an was part of the community’s life. Since the verses were not revealed in the order
in which they appear in the completed Qur’an, the ongoing process of placing them in
order was part of Muhammad’s mission to transmit the revelation until completion over
23 years of his prophethood. Scribes undertook the work of setting down the Qur’an
resident in the memory of numerous reciters and in writing. Muhammad’s own words
and his exemplary deeds were also recorded (in hadith ), and the sciences of Qur’anic
exegesis and hadith authentication and evaluation became the foundation of the
scholarly disciplines and Islamic law.

By the early Abbasid period, the literate tradition was well established in many areas of
study. History writing became prominent to record the momentous events in the rise of
Islam. The histories of regions new to Islam were often committed to writing for the first
time, and the emergence of “universal history” synthesized much of the received
knowledge of the Biblical and classical pasts, and the civilizations of India and Persia
(See, for example, Gibb, 1987; Duri, 1983). The humanities flowered with the
development of Muslim civilization. Scientific knowledge was built upon the foundation
of practical knowledge of the Arabs in seafaring, navigation and astronomy, trade,
animal husbandry and agriculture. Caliphal patronage supplied funding and the
development of Islamic law provided motivation for scholars to set high standards for
time-keeping and calendars, accurate orientation of the direction of worship toward the
Ka’bah, and calculation of inheritance, weights, and measures. Curiosity, geographic
access, and ample means supplied the dynamic for the massive translation, absorption,
development and dissemination of knowledge of all kinds (Hassan and Hill, 1986;
Watson, 1983). The timely arrival of papermaking technology from China provided
additional impetus to this dynamism (Bloom, 2001). The flourishing of this literate
tradition resulted in the formation of educational institutions that advanced ideas about
Islamic education far beyond its rudimentary beginnings, and that continue to shape
such ideas today

The dynamics of knowledge acquisition in early Muslim civilization provided for a
concept of Islamic education that placed no barrier between “religious” and “secular”
learning. Islam in this context should be understood as it was in most civilized traditions
in world history–as a universalizing ideal of human knowledge, not as a constraint.
Scholars identified disciplines that were parts of a whole set of knowledge that a truly
educated person must acquire before specializing in any specific discipline. The lack of
clear delineation between worldly and spiritual knowledge does not imply that
knowledge based on reason, observation and experiment was considered taboo, simply
because revelation was assumed to be the paramount truth. The Qur’an exhorts
believers to use reason to verify both the information provided by the senses, and
knowledge based on revelation. [8]

Furthermore, the Qur’an and Islamic law recognizes various spheres of human action —
aqida (articles of belief), ibadat (forms of worship) and ‘ilm (embracing knowledge of the
first two as well as worldly knowledge). A hadith expressly states that Muhammad
advised his followers to think independently about matters of ordinary life and human
skill, and not to do such things in unquestioned imitation of his example. He asked his
followers’ advice and relied on their experience and skill. Second, the Qur’an is a rich
source of inspiration to many fields of knowledge, both for its exhortations to acquire
and share knowledge, and for its remarkably intriguing descriptions of natural

phenomena. Believers are asked in the Qur’an to glorify the Creator by applying reason
to the information absorbed by the senses, and making knowledge out of it. [9] The Arabic word for “religion” ( deen ) itself has a strong association with intellectual
and civilized life, and can be compared to similar concepts in the Western intellectual
heritage. Deen refers not to a human institution, but to a state of being (Islam is called
“the deen.”). Investigation of this concept leads to the Arabic root d-y-n, whose meanings
underscore the relationship between spiritual, intellectual, and civilized life. The root’s
four primary meanings are: mutual obligation, submission or acknowledgment, judicial
authority, and natural inclination. Deen expresses the idea of obligation toward one
God, based on natural inclination towards the Creator. The root d-y-n also connotes the
idea of debt or indebtedness, transactions involving the exchange of trusts and
obligations. The word for city— madinah —corresponding to the Greek civitas, comes
from the same root. A city is a community of complex social relations and transactions
based on responsible and reciprocal fulfillment of obligations, submission to civil
judgment and authority. The idea of “civilization” (again paralleling civitas ) is also
associated with d-y-n ; the verb tamaddana means to found cities, or to humanize
thought, and tamaddun means “civilization” or “refinement of society.” Thus, religion
and education are brought together in the human enterprise of knowing and glorifying
the Creator, and seeking knowledge and putting it to beneficial use in society. This
knowledge is developed and transmitted to ensure the continuation of civilized society
(Cornell, 2002)

The concept of knowledge in the Islamic tradition, and the term for those who develop
and transmit it, are combined in the Arabic root ‘ a-l-m, which forms the word for
knowledge — ‘ilm, and the participle designating a person of learning — ‘alim (pl. ‘
ulama’ ). The Islamic tradition of scholarship does not include ordination, but confers
the status of scholar upon those whose judgment or knowledge is considered worthy.
The ‘ ulama’ have formed a highly influential social group throughout the history of
Muslim civilization, in their roles as educators, jurists and scholars. ‘ Ulama’ were
accorded respect and authority that often checked the overweening power of the State,
and served as judges and trustees of charitable foundations. The spread of knowledge
through this local and transregional class of people was an important factor in the
unification of Islamic beliefs and practice and in sustaining a literate tradition within
Muslim societies (Bulliet, 1994).

Two additional concepts from Muslim culture and Arabic language illuminate social
facets of Islamic education. One is adab, which means a custom or norm of conduct
passed down through the generations. As Muslim civilization developed, the word took
on the sense of ” high quality of soul, good upbringing, urbanity and courtesy,” the two
last words referring to manners used in elite company, and behavior befitting a civilized
person. By Abbasid times, adab was to be acquired as a valued educational outcome:
“the word was the equivalent of the Latin urbanitas, the civility, courtesy, refinement of
the cities” (Gabrieli, 1999). The concept merged into the education system, where adab
acquired an intellectual meaning: the sum of knowledge that makes a person courteous
and “urbane” in secular culture. To become mu’addab, one had to study the sciences of
rhetoric, grammar, lexicography, metrics, and be well versed in poetry, literature, and
the sciences. The concept of adab supported the aesthetic refinements of civilized life,
and was integral to education in an Islamic spirit.

The more overarching concept of tarbiyah refers to moral education, from a root word
related to accumulation. Acquiring knowledge, ethics, and a moral worldview is a
foundation for achieving what the Qur’an requires of every human being — to enjoin
what is good, and prevent what is evil. According to a famous hadith in the collection of
Nawawi (1976), this can be accomplished by the hand, the voice, or the heart. In other
words, to work for social justice, a person must gain the tools for right action as well.
The moral framework for a Muslim is good intention, and to ensure that the means for
achieving good or avoiding evil are in themselves good and not evil means. Education
gives a person the knowledge to recognize the task, the moral foundation to know what
to do, and the personal resources to carry out the task.

Islamically educated persons would combine the aspects of Islamic education described
above. They would be well versed in the original sources of Qur’an and Sunnah, as well
as the Islamic disciplines that provide the tools for study. In learning about the deen,
they would learn to carry out the duties of the faith, and to act according to its
principles. Through ethical and moral teaching, an educated person would act in a
socially responsible manner, acquire the social graces of civilized life, and would partake
of and contribute to the sum of skill and knowledge according to their time. The mission
statement of one Muslim school in the United States expresses this goal of a harmonious
education and perpetuation of the community’s faith and values:

We provide an education that builds a love of learning along with the academic skills to
continue a child’s education for life. We support the formation of Muslim character by
helping students achieve spiritual goals through the pursuit of knowledge and service to
the community and society. We strive to cultivate behavior that reflects Islamic morals
and values as prescribed by the Qur’an and Sunnah. We foster an open spirit of inquiry
in which faith and reason leads toward higher knowledge, sound individual life choices
and responsible citizenship. (Education for Life, n.d.)

The ability of an educated, civilized person to benefit humanity, as well as their capacity
to communicate with others, is a goal of learning that creates understanding and shares
these values in a civic conversation. Its goal is to engage in collaborative efforts to solve
common problems and to create a civilized society that shares knowledge for the benefit
of all.

It becomes evident that both the obligation to be educated, and the moral, intellectual
and cultural concepts of an education in the Muslim tradition are not far removed from
similar goals and concepts associated with Western traditions and aspects of education.
Several scholars have produced extended academic studies on the known historical
connections between these traditions, and can trace clear lines of transmission of
educational values and methods that flowed to Muslim civilization from the classical
tradition, and from Muslim civilization to Western civilization from the 11 th century
onward (LeGoff, 1993; Makdisi, 1981; Nakosteen, 1964). The two cultural
understandings have drawn upon the same intellectual heritage – the monotheistic
tradition of moral and ethical standards, the rich and complex Greek heritage (as much
“of” the East as “of” the West) and the Mediterranean melting pot of ideas and
disciplines, which also bears influences from Asia and Africa

This essay began by cautioning that the term, Islamic, in public discourse often separates
and alienates concepts such as education from any cultural associations that would be
familiar to a western-educated, American reader or listener. It is hoped that a level of
conceptual and institutional familiarity has been constructed that can bridge between
educational ideas and institutions presently existing in the constitutionally protected
area of the American public square, including those that are developing in the American
Muslim community

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