It is claimed that Mohammed was illiterate and the Koran literally the word of God, transcribed by others from his revelations. Mohammed is therefore a prophet and teacher but in reality a mouthpiece for the absolute message of God.
Koran and education
In Islam, books, especially the Koran, are held in the highest regard and mosques functioned as repositories of books. One even had to wash before touching the Koran. This reverence for the ‘book’, especially the Koran, is paramount. Indeed it was almost immediately made into a ‘codex’ (book form), as they had acquired paper technology from captured Chinese sailors in 751AD.
The dominant role this one book, of similar length to the Christian Gospels, on education in the Muslim world cannot be underestimated. For five centuries after its emergence in the 7th century, the so called ‘Golden Age’ of Arabic culture, flourished in centres of learning in Damascus, Bagdad and Cairo. Their libraries collected and distributed Greek and Roman classical texts and made advances in mathematics, science, philosophy and law.
Recite and repeat
Prayer is one of the five pillars of Islam, recommended five times a day, so the repetition of recitation, known to be effective for embedding knowledge in long term memory, becomes an ingrained habit, as does listening attentively, especially at Friday prayers and also through the attentive reading of the Koran. Koran means ‘to recite’ and the text was originally meant to be read aloud. It has been argued that this has led to a dependence on rote learning. Some argue that this focus on recitation and repetition tends to infect studies across all subjects and education in the Islamic world has been criticised for its dependence on simple recitation at the expense of critical analysis.
Islam literally means ‘submission’ and it has been argued that this also affects the way learners and teachers approach education. In Sura 75:15–18 attentive reading is specifically mentioned and, in particular, memorisation of the Koran, an act which has been admired for centuries in the Muslim world. Those who manage to learn the entire Koran are greatly respected. With traditional paternalism, authority of the state and dominance of religion, some argue, comes a lack of questioning, passive learners and didactic teaching. Obedience and compliance, not unusual in other educational systems, arguably can be much more embedded in Islamic countries. The time spent on religious studies also squeezes out time available for other subjects. This may be another reason for the low levels of original research and patents in countries where Islamic education is dominant.
Koran and writing
With a foucus on reading came writing. Writing, not only through the Koran, but in other expository texts, is a strong feature of Islamic education. Sura 96 urges believers to ‘recite’ but also explains that God taught man through the ‘pen’, namely writing. Writing, especially calligraphy is regarded as a high art form, as it is in the Far East, but never was in in the West. The double-edged sword is that the power of the pen is seen as the power of God’s absolute religious knowledge, not the freedom to write critically. Indeed, writing, even drawing, has led to death threats ‘fatwas’, on novelists and cartoonists. Islam, like Christianity, has supported the extremes of rigorous scholarship and education but also bans on education, especially for women. Such are the advantages and disadvantages of religion in general, in education.
Places of education
The madrasa goes back to the time of Mohammed, who was a teacher and had followers and students. These provided education on a scale at all levels for centuries. Places of higher learning, with teaching, libraries, even observatories, appeared as early as the 9th century and some argue that these were the proto-Universities we saw emerge in Europe. They certainly provided a depth of learning and a reverence for books from the ancient world. Many that survived and helped create the Renaissance (rebirth) owe their existence in the modern world to these Islamic institutions.
For all its educational qualities, the focus on one book, its absolute truth and primitive recitation, repletion and memorization, often seem like primitive pedagogies, leaving little room for active and critical thought. Islam, like the extremes of Christianity and Judaism, can be seen as a return to an absolute form of belief, where young minds are locked down before they have had a chance to reflect or choose. This is an anathema to secularists who believe that education should open young minds not close them down. On the other hand, let us not forget that the Islamic world encouraged learning, scholarship and intellectual endeavour, gifting the world those texts of the Classical world we now so admire.
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Lyons M (2011) The Book Thames & Hudson
Hitti P.K. (1936) History of the Arabs MacMillan
Whitaker B (2009) What’s Wrong with the Middle East