Saturday, April 29, 2006

An Incomplete Education: Analyzing and Addressing the Problem of Secular Schooling

In the latest edition of Al Jummah Magazine, Sr. Maryam Haleem's article on An Incomplete Education highlights the dilemma Muslims face from secular education. Her central argument is that secular education stymies Muslims to distance themselves from their deen and that we need to synthesize secular education with Islamic knowledge. Here is what she says in her own words:

“If we do not have integration of Islam’s teaching in our daily subjects, it will just fade softly into separate fables and stories of olden morals and virtues. These prophetic narratives will become merely vague images of what somehow we ought to be, while at the same time there will be resounding feeling that these ancient moral men and women do not really understand what we are going through today, in our time, in our stage of the history of humanity, because they did not live in the same timeline as us, because they were always a world apart, because they were separate and untouched by the real world we were taught.



Because there is very little relevance accorded to Islam though any of the curricula (formal or informal) by which we are learning about Islam, and because virtually all of our education is based on secular (and predominantly Western) sources, our Muslim identity is greatly weakened and, in many cases, shattered. Whether our youth attend Islamic private schools or public schools, they are indoctrinated in the importance, relevance, and superiority in Western education, Secular education. Secularism in all its facets of life, becomes the standard, the pedestal, which we all strive to achieve.”

This wields a profound impact on the Muslim mindset, especially given our relatively ineffectual presence in the West and our sublimated spiritual identities. Instead of raising s up and bestowing upon us the mantle with which we can proudly and gratefully call ourselves Muslim, our education confuses and embarrasses us, even renders us averse to the idea of being Muslim.



Abashment emerges out of the knowledge that our Islamic heritage is somehow seen as less, less, less that our Western inheritance – less important, less civilized, and less sophisticated. This mortification naturally makes us much more inclined to sport our Western identities than our Muslim one. Such an inferiority complex, in many cases, leads to impatience with and, post you-know-what-date, and almost hysterical averseness to “excessive” Islamic thinking. It makes us, as community, far more eager to listen to someone with Western, secular credentials than another who embodies good eloquent, dignified, Islamic values, but who is lacking in a secular background.

This draws us even further away from the already drifting world of legendary prophets and their companions. It makes them the heroes of distant, enjoyable, inspirational stories for the end of the stressful secular day, when we can read about these larger-than-life figures, admire them from a safe remoteness, and all the while stroke ourselves with excuses as to why were are not more like them – inevitably pinning this to the fact that they lived in an obviously different and infinitely less complex world than our own multi-everything, modern one.”


Her analysis in insightful and warranted in era where more and more Muslim parents are placing greater emphasis on secular education at the price of Islamic knowledge. Even those parents that put their sons and daughters through traditional Islamic boarding schools or universities find that themselves and their children are isolated from the general trend amongst Muslims perception that Secular degrees, even in subjects such as ‘Islamic studies’ or Arabic where traditional Islamic schools are superior by Orientalists’ standards, are the only ones worth pursing.

To limit the perpetuation this problem, she suggests that:

We need to reconsider the Islamic way of learning. We need to establish it earnest in our schools… To say it in a sentence, integrating Islam into traditional subjects will give students not only knowledge but, but something of greater value: Wisdom.”


While Sr. Haleem’s analysis raises concerns about this important problem facing Muslims, I find her recommendations to counter this growing trend wanting. She presents an abstract course of action but does not identify the actors (family, community, or universities) who are necessary to implement it into reality.

My own personal belief is that addressing this problem has to begin at a micro-level, with emphasis on the self and the family as the vehicles of mobilization. Even the Qur’an attests that, “Verily, Allah will not change the condition of a people as long as they do not change the condition themselves [13:11].” Muslims parents and students should realize that the burden is upon them to preserve their own deen. Unfortunately, Muslims have not developed enough institutions or social organizations to rely on linking identities in the West with our Islamic values.

Imagine every eighteen to twenty-six year old Muslim having the free opportunity to make Umrah Umrah and spend a week appreciating the Holy cities of Mecca and Medinah. It would without a doubt rejuvenate their eman and remind them of their Islamic identity. Think it’s an absurd idea? The Jewish community already does its own version of it; free Birthright Israel trips.

On an optimistic note, Muslims should not become discouraged by our current situation but rather continue to strive towards integrating their family’s secular education with Islam so that one day, by the will of Allah, parents will crave that their children become Haziful Qur'ans and Muhaddiths.