Why an Islamic education revolution is needed - opinion

This requires producing new curricula based on the philosophy of standards and outcomes, not simply on informational fillers.

Filipino Muslim students read the Koran in a classroom next to the Blue Mosque ahead of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Taguig, Metro Manila. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Filipino Muslim students read the Koran in a classroom next to the Blue Mosque ahead of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Taguig, Metro Manila.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Education system imbalances have plagued Arab and Islamic countries, hindering their progress and development for decades. These imbalances reflect general confusion among the intelligentsia who, in many countries, have been torn between adhering to the past and looking toward the future, and between what it considers authentic and worthy of preservation versus what it considers modern and necessary. This confusion has existed since the era of the French campaign in Egypt and the Levant at the end of the 18th century. It was at that time that Arabs and Muslims discovered that Europe had made great leaps in civilization with things like modern military technology and civil equipment, including printing and communication devices.
Since then, Arabs and Muslims have been confused between the past with all its glory and greatness, the present with all its regression and backwardness, and the future toward which they do not know how to move. The root of the educational crises in most Arab and Islamic societies has thus been uncertainty about where to direct the focus of education.
Should education focus on the greatness of past Islamic civilizations and their heritage of jurisprudence and intellectual advancement? Or should the focus be on understanding the present and moving ahead to the future? Or should it be a combination of both? If we decide to blend the past and the future, what proportion should we adopt from each and what components do we include in that mixture? Sadly, most societies have opted to look toward the past, with only a few selecting the present and almost none in favor of the future. This explains the many problems and crises experienced within the Arab and Islamic worlds.
The emergence of violent terrorist organizations was neither a transient event nor a natural phenomenon; it was a logical outcome of an educational system that has focused on teaching the past. That system has produced generations of lost people who live deep in the past, are absent from the present and have no expectations for the future. These generations joined various terrorist groups in which they learned about the past and attempted to live in it. They wanted to revive and repeat the past because, in their view, it represented pure Islam.
Education is a planned process used to design the future. Its aim is to produce people who carry their culture, identity, religion and values forward into that future. Education may borrow certain beliefs, values and cultural identifications from the past but it cannot borrow actual historical events, outdated behaviors and ways of dress and appearance. We must direct education toward the future while preserving the most viable components of shared identity: our religion, values and national culture.
Arab and Muslim societies need to teach for the future and put the past in its natural context as a source of historical lessons and a repository of values, self-esteem and identity. Religion as the immortal revelation is not limited by space and time and cannot be relegated to the past, present or future. Thus, it is necessary to constantly reconsider and renew religious education relevant to each point in time.

I HAVE ALWAYS advocated the continuous renewal of curricula in the Islamic sciences to incorporate up-to-date examples, models and situations so that there is no feeling that religion has been imported from the depths of history, but rather that it guides students to live better within the present context.
Our societies will not develop unless educators realize that education is a future-oriented process and project, not just a way to recreate history and squeeze ourselves into past glories that we can no longer replicate. The education systems in our countries must therefore undergo a comprehensive restructuring process, away from the rote learning and memorization system that does not encourage independent thinking, into a new era.
This requires producing new curricula based on the philosophy of standards and outcomes, not simply on informational fillers. It requires that teachers be qualified and capable of implementing modern curricula and transforming traditional standards and outputs into topics, activities and applications. This type of teacher needs higher education institutions and modern educational facilities that deliver contemporary teaching methods, approaches, resources, training aids and testing and evaluation tools.
This requires an education revolution in the Arab and Islamic world; a revolution and reform movement that restores the prestige, stature and attractiveness of education in society and places the teacher within the upper echelons of the social elite. Teachers create and mold society’s most important assets and thus hold primary responsibility for the future security of society and the state. As such, we entrust them with our most precious assets.
All societies must consider education as the frontline of defense against any threat – the leading sovereign institution and paramount fortress that defends the security of the national state. Education must be the main priority in state budgets. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has made great strides in educational development, allocating 17% of the federal budget for the years 2019–2021 to education. This could not have been achieved without the awareness among the UAE’s leadership of the importance of education in ensuring a stable, prosperous and tolerant society that contributes effectively to building human civilization.
Once societies admit that education is the primary factor responsible for achieving either tolerance and peace – or hatred, violence and terrorism – they are driven to take bold steps to reform education, periodically re-examining the structure of curricula and conducting regular reviews of their methodologies and educational content, including the values, knowledge, ideas, outlooks and behavioral attitudes espoused therein.
In this context, the process of renewal must be carried out by competent authorities, namely, professional experts in theology, pedagogy, sociology, anthropology and psychology. We must have a variety of task groups and subject-matter experts in all necessary fields that will cooperate closely to accomplish their mission. We must not leave the reform process to the theologians or religious scholars alone.
Dr. Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi is a member of the UAE Federal National Council for the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, and chairman of the council’s Defense, Interior and Foreign Affairs Committee. He was previously chancellor of the United Arab Emirates University and is currently the first chairman of Hedayah, the center for countering violent extremism, based in Abu Dhabi. Twitter: @Dralnoaimi