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What is Islam’s View on Higher Learning?


UCAS. The word alone reminds many of us of the numerous drafts of Personal Statements, and of the very challenging University interviews we undertook. In the second year of a student’s A-Levels, much time is spent on the UCAS (University College Application System) Application form, as well as on preparing for University interviews. Despite the rise in fees, the number of applicants seems to rise every year, with Mary Curnock Cook, the Chief Executive of UCAS recently stating that ‘it is expected that around 65,000 individuals will apply for entry in 2012.’[1]

It is perhaps for this reason that over the years, much has been written on preparing students for the University interview, such as University Interview Guide (2004) by Andy Gardner and Barbara Hamnett, and the more recent, Succeeding In Your Application To University (2010). There is even a collection of books dedicated specifically to the interview process at Oxford and Cambridge, which includes Katy Blatt’s aptly titled, Getting Into Oxford & Cambridge: 2011 Entry (2011).

Strangely, very little has been written by way of discourse on why a student should go to University. It seems to be a given that a student should wish to obtain a University Degree. Many of us went to, or are going to University because we were, or are being told that without a decent Degree in a chosen subject, we would not be able to get a well-paid job, and not be able to subsequently earn ourselves a high salary, and secure a better standard of living. If we do reflect, and find that a high salary is the sole or even primary reason for us attending, or having attended University, or is the reason we are seeking to do further research at a Masters or PhD level, we seriously need to reevaluate our goals and priorities.

In a well-known Hadith narrated by Umar Ibn Al Khattab (Radi Allahu Anhu) the Prophet (Sallallahu Alihi Wa Sallam) said, ‘actions are only by intention, and every man has only that which he intended…’ (Bukhari and Muslim). Reflecting on this Hadith in relation to UCAS, we find that the questions which arise are, ‘what is higher learning?’ and ‘why should a practicing Muslim go to University and obtain a Degree?’ Related to these is the question, ‘if a person does wish to study further at MA or PhD level, what is the reason for doing so?’

These questions are heavily focused on the Applicant, but they are also being asked in order that as parents sending off our sons and daughters to University this year, we can be clear on why we are sending them. As an English teacher who has completed a BA in English at Queen Mary University and then gone on to complete an MA in Literature at Queen Mary University followed by a Masters Level PGCE Initial Teacher Training (ITT) Course at the Institute of Education, I find these are questions which need to be asked because in one way or other, we all have some sort of connection to the Universities of the UK-we have either been, wish to go, or wish to send our children to them. It is therefore the purpose of this discussion to consider Islam’s relationship with the concept of a University, and academic study.

The Role Of A University

As we begin thinking of our relationship to Universities in the UK, it may be useful to turn to critical pieces of writing written in the West on the topic of University education. In his recently published book What Are Universities For? (2012) Stefan Collini articulates the point made by John Henry Newman in his often cited book, The Idea of a University: Defined and Illustrated(1907), which is that study at University should ‘extend […] human understanding.’[2] In his 1907 work, Newman posits that ‘before we are educated’ we are ‘unreal in our sentiments and crude in our judgments.’[3] This is not to say that a person without a University Degree does not have any ability to use their reason. Rather, what Newman seems to be arguing is that a University education refines, or should refine a person’s judgment and reason.

Collini further clarifies this by stating that in Newman’s view, a University education should affect a person’s ‘way of being’, giving one ‘the possession of a certain kind of balance or poise in all of one’s conduct.’[4] Interestingly, what Newman ascribes to is not too distant from the view advocated by Sheikh Muhammad Al Abbasy-a senior lecturer in Medinah University, whom I interviewed for my previous Islamique article: both maintain that a education should refine the individual.

Having talked briefly about the outcome of a University education, we now turn to motivations for seeking to obtain a University Degree. If on the one hand, we are going to University to simply seek knowledge for the sake of it, there is no end to that goal. Seeking knowledge is virtuous, but there must be sort of outcome. If on the other hand, we are seeking to obtain a 1st Class, or 2:1 Degree because we want a well-paid job, then there is no end to that either, as we will constantly work to climb that proverbial greasy pole. Unfortunately, this is the means through which a University education is measured here. As Collini states, ‘we judge the success of a university education by how much more graduates can earn than non-graduates’, adding that one of the reasons Universities themselves provide for their existence is that they ‘provide ‘training [for] future employees.’[5] As if Collini’s words were not enough, one of the pieces of advice given to UCAS applicants inHow To Complete Your UCAS Application (2012) by Beryl Dixon, is that a prospective applicant should ‘have a particular career in mind.’[6]The aim in the West at least seems simply to be that one acquires a University Degree in order to gain the highest salary possible when one eventually joins the societal workforce. Clearly, the situation is bleak.

University Study In Makkah

Having discussed some of the ideals in the UK about a University education, it is important now we turn to the Islamic world to see what views are held there about academic study. This is not to create a dichotomy between the views held, but rather to compare, as well as contrast them.

During my Umrah this year, I had the unique opportunity to interview the Mudeer (Director) of Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah, Dr Adil Ibn Ahmed Benaa’im. He is highly prolific in the Arab academic world and it was a privilege to sit with him. When I asked Dr Benaa’im about his beliefs on the aim of higher education with regard to his institution, he replied in Arabic, the translation of which is, ‘a University is responsible for [the] education [of a person], but it is not responsible for what happens after that’.

According to Dr Benaa’im, his University’s chief concern was to ‘graduate the student’, but he did add that his University provided students with some distinct options: ‘after that [graduation] he may enroll in the University for Masters to become a better da’iee [caller to Islam] or do a PhD, and after that if he finds a post, he may enroll in the University as a teacher or Professor, or he may go to Science Research Centres [to do academic research], such as The Ministry Of Education And Islamic Studies.’ Another option open to the graduate is that ‘he may work in invitation (Da’wah) inviting people to Islam’, or he may ‘work for an association which helps people to memorise the Quran’ because ‘even after a Bachelors [Degree] the student may teach other people and give Da’wah’. For those who complete an MA and PhD, he said, ‘we have two jobs, the first being to teach people Arabic grammar and how to speak Arabic properly, the second being to prepare teachers for teaching Arabic.’He was careful to outline that the University provides detailed teacher-training, which includes training on ‘how to prepare the syllabus’ as well as ‘practical education’ in fhe form of ‘in-school training.’

Evidently, as well as providing employment for lecturers, the Institution itself is an ITT (Initial Teacher Training) provider much like the Institute of Education in London, allowing graduates to become teachers within their own University after graduation, without having to re-apply at a separate institution to complete a PGCE. Clearly, there is a gentle push in Makkah towards using one’s acquired knowledge in a fruitful way-either as a teacher, or a caller to Islam. Interestingly, Dr Benaa’im’s words echo those of Sheikh Al Abbasy, who also stated in his interview that ‘the main aim […] in the University, is to qualify the student to be good Da’iah; a good caller to Allah (Subhana Wa Ta Ala).

It is worth noting that the reasons for undergraduate and postgraduate study as outlined by Dr Benaa’im are distanced greatly from the selfish goal of studying to ensure the highest possible wage. Dr Benaa’im espouses the view that a graduate can either study further and either become a researcher or lecturer, or work in the Da’wah field teaching others about Islam.  This aim it seems, works to allow the student’s Ilm (knowledge) tobenefit him. There is a Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (Sallallahu Alihi Wa Sallam) in which Zaid ibn Alqam reported that the Prophet (Sallallahu Alihi Wa Sallam) used to supplicate: ‘I seek refuge in You [Allah] from […] the knowledge which does not benefit…’ (Muslim) Clearly, Dr Benaa’im and his colleagues are attempting to keep themselves and their students within the boundaries of this du’aa (supplication), encouraging their students to actively ensure their knowledge benefits them and others.

Conclusion: A Lifestyle Choice

We noted that thinkers in both Makkah and the UK agree that a University education should refine an individual’s thinking and judgment. With regard to motivation, it is clear from this discussion that seeking knowledge, and indeed a Degree at University is a lifestyle choice: on the one hand, one can study in order to secure the highest possible salary, measuring their academic success with how much money they make in their field of work. Such a person will never find contentment because as the Prophet Muhammad (Sallallahu Alihi Wa Sallam) said in a Sahih Hadith narrated by Anas Bin Malik, ‘if Adam’s son had a valley full of gold, he would like to have two valleys…’ (Bukhari)

On the other hand, as was evident from the words of Dr Benaa’im, there are also alternative, more Islamically-orientated lifestyle choices available to a student. A graduate, upon completing their Degree, can use their knowledge to benefit themselves by completing a PhD and becoming a lecturer, or even becoming a caller to Islam or teacher of the Quran after their Bachelors’ Degree.

Dixon states that ‘the decision to pursue a higher education course is not one that should be taken lightly’[7] and this is indeed true. A person needs to reflect deeply on their reasons for going to, returning to or sending their offspring to University, making sure it is not simply money-orientated. What is the Islamic view on University? Clearly, there is flexibility and room tochoose a path which will cause a person’s undergraduate or postgraduate study to be fruitful. A person needs to choose an Islam-orientated motivation for academic study, through which they can use their knowledge to benefit themselves and, on a wider scale, the rest of humanity.


Sources: www.islam21c.com


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[1] Mary Curnock Cook, ‘Foreward’ in How To Complete Your UCAS Application 2012 Entry (Surrey: Trotman Publishing, 2012), p.xi. 
[2] Stefan Collini, What Are Universities For? (London: Penguin, 2012), p.x.

[3] John Henry Newman, The Idea Of A University: Defined And Illustrated (London: Longmans Green, & Co, 1907), p.480.

[4] Collini, What Are Universities For? P.50.
[5] ibid, p.88-91.
[6] Beryl Dixon, How To Complete Your UCAS Application: 2012 Entry (Surrey: Trotman Publishing, 2012), p.10.
[7] Dixon, How To Complete Your UCAS Application: 2012 Entry, p.6. 

About Aslom Ullah


  1. Md. Sydur Rahman

    we know, a person having university degree clearly a well learned person than a ungraduated person in the present world. simply it can be told that a well learned person has much knowledge to do a work(as a job) than a less learned person. Now as the university education is divided into different specific subjects as each specific subjects has its vast area of leaning so every students have to choose a specific subject. And as we know knowledge is directly related with its applied field ( say if we want to say prayer properly we should know the proper knowledge to do it) than what’s wrong if a person think about his carrier to choose a subject of university. If his income is illigal than it is haram. but if it is halal income than what’s wrong on it. simply if a student learn knowledge to be a specialist In a specific field and at the same time he has a plan to get a best job then what’s wrong on it. I think it is obviously best idea than a person who think only on learn knowledge. Moreover it is also correct if he only focus on his carrier and for that he take university dgree because at the same time he learn knowledge.I think job seeking intension is not wrong. yes, if you do not want to get a good job and lead your life simply then that is your choise.
    please don’t misguide people. Allah never forbid us to take halal income and it is not wrong to make him prepared to get a well paid prestigious job.

  2. Illham Jamali

    Highly self-opinionated article :s
    Very very very sad indeed. University life is a lifestyle choice? I’m pretty sure it’s a career choice… Holding Islam as if it’s your occupation..? Uh.. Allah give us taufeeq to do that and give us patience to bear the world that would be born due to the consequences of such actions. Yes, there are people who are occupied with Islamic occupations such as judges and scholars (which are legitimate occupations)but besides those heights of human capabilities, there really are no other career choices left open for us according to you… You can’t expect every single muslim to be so extraordinary that flocks of people try to imitate them but you can however have a majority of educated practical Muslims who at-least exemplify a balanced and aesthetic life of equanimity in contrast to their wealth (whether you like it or not, people will usually be rich regardless of university education. Islam isn’t so feeble as to discard wealth to preserve faith). Then of course, at the core of these amazing people we have the great leaders worthy of admiration (the saints and sages).

    If we don’t have doctors, engineers, psychologists and higher educated muslims then who’s going to reach out to the rest of the world? You want the Islamic world to remain in darkness from higher education.. Meaning depend solely on non-muslims for our facilities like our hospitals, schools, and so on?

    Big misconception. Just like thinking that people go to university for just gaining money (let alone lifestyle choice?). It shows you lack knowledge of research which means you’re not aware of the current situation which means your unfit to lead. The Modern Era started with us, now your saying Islam doesn’t approve of higher education? o_o

    The majority of American University students are very active participants in non-profit organizations, dedicating much of their time and money to whatever cause they’re supporting. Not only do they care but they have a sense of greater meaning and a responsibility to contribute to society. The reason why I’m mentioning Kuffar students is to illustrate the disgusting ignorance we’re plunged in by believing ‘all americans are hedonists’. No, they are actually people who are fighting for change and are with very good intentions, they just lack Islam.

    They acknowledge something very important which we practically lack: Celibacy does not suit education, it must be practiced and preached.
    And that’s where we Muslims fall short.

    May Allah sow the virtues of the Prophet(S) in all of us and give us the taufeeq to adopt a path of balance and open-mindedness needed to practice our religion (regardless of era).


    • Assalaam Alaykum
      Thank you for your point view regarding Islam and higher education. We do appreciate your concern in the framework of motivation and outcome of education following your observation. In essence, you have the right to say what you have thought and said the way you have said. Our responsibility is to defend your right to say, BUT not the accuracy of what you have said. Based on this background, we have the following to share:
      First, to reject everything Western is one way of doing thing amongst individuals. For that reason, in the course of discourse this particular stand is labelled as traditionalists. In practice, this approach share its strengths and weaknesses as cited by others. We don’t think it is fair to repeat what have already been articulated above.
      Second, to accept everything Western in the branded terms of modernity and development is another way of doing thing among other people too. In the discourse of curriculum and teaching, people who belong to this paradigm are labelled as liberals or Westerners and the like. To them, everything Western is a life model for non-Westerners to emulate in order to “prosper”. It is from this group, where the question of moral values is relatively downplayed while non- Westerners are left with the choice to either to swallow everything or reject everything. In fact, the advocates of this point of view consider education is neutral and value free!
      Third, to integrate the Words of Allah and the World of Allah is another way, still other people prefer to believe and employ it throughout. The advocates of this perspective consider education as value laden, such that critical analysis is needed before someone accept a given educational model or framework. It is the way to balance perspectives, worldviews, issues, professionals, careers and everything within the considerable framework of being close to Allah as the Master and the Lord of the universe and its content. It is within this framework , the believers of integrative paradigm develop the sense of being responsible and accountable to the Creator, to creations including human beings, animals, trees, birds and the like, with clear focus, determination, zeal and consciousness of getting prepared for the eternal life(Akhera) where no bearer can bear the burden of others. This is the way, people get educated to have constructive contribution to themselves, the society and overall humanity, with clear picture that, there is no responsibility without accountability. This is the way of doing thing with discipline of body, heart, soul and the mind in order to serve the entire humanity irrespective of background, gender and colour differences. The challenge ahead is on how to bring this idea into grassroots levels amidst multiple immoral TV shows and entertainments. However, rest assured that somewhere people have started the move and challenges are on the way too.
      We pray that in the course of discussing such beautiful topic we spend sometime and energy to go through the philosophical underpinning peoples’ perspectives, because as human beings we have accepted the trust to live and share as prescribed by the Lord of the universe and its content, the Almighty Allah alongside other creatures. This is the noble responsibility we need to encourage and remind one another from time to time.
      Wabillahit Taufiq

  3. Is
    I often wondered who Eng was, believing that there must have been such a person, that preceded the country of England. Maybe he was an engineer.
    There is no doubt that he learned from someone. Insh Allah we could learn from someone.
    We, the Islamic civilization used to teach Algebra, Chemistry, Astronomy etc.
    Then, we ruled ourselves & others. Learning is a Blessing from Allah, it is enjoyable. One sacrifies one’s mind & body through learning.
    Knowledge of Quran & Sunnah make the mind & body holy. Knowledge of the khalaq sustains the community.
    Allah has given us the creation as a model from this we learn. Seek refuge with Allah from the accursed Shaitan, the enemy of the self confidence gained through salat.

  4. Dr Mohammed Iqbal Patel

    What is Islam’s View on Higher Learning
    My half a penny’s worth.
    Western University Education primarily focusses on gaining worldly benefits or at least that is how is sold to young people.
    I gained my university education and by the grace of Allah implicitly it also opened the doors of awareness which became a guiding element to Allah and his deen. I believe Western University education despite its pitfalls if gained with right intentions and care does bring benefit. One does need to know the boundaries of the deen that under no circumstances must not be violated.Keeping that in mind I personally think Western University education is fine and where there are clear and obvious conflicts our scholars can help and advice and guide us. eg. I would not recommend a degree in dancing/drama/music that which encourages promiscuity, however something like medicine, management skills, leadership skills, accounts and social welfare if brought within the framework of the shariah would certainly be beneficial. EG. Shiakh Haitham himelf is a Dr., Abu Ameenah Bilaal Philips also a Dr. and so on…
    Please be carefull it seems you are throwing the baby with the bath water.
    Very easy to call education as humbug…a rejectionist view
    Muhammed Iqbal

  5. Bachelors a doctorate and still no career.
    I wrangle everyday with how my life unraveled. I came from a very strict background. Parents that valued education– pushing from a very young age to become this or become that. I have had no social life whatsoever in fact my one friend currently is one that I met through an Islamic network and we live an ocean apart. I don’t recall having any fun or a vacation to unwind, just study fail, saddle study, attain a bachelors, work crappy job because of my inability to network and no one desiring to help me finally I made to med school, struggled saddled up passed all the state requirements got licensed. And yet year after year I get passed over in the American match, where they cultivate either like minded WASPS or Hindus to fill in the rest of the spots and I in a heap of debt, no personal life, no husband, no children no career. I have volunteered in a big university hospital to network I was able to network into a humiliating technician job from which I was let go and where I was utterly miserable. I understand Islam’s stance on Education but what’s I really fail to see how it helped me personally? I am trying to attain a residency in a Muslim country. Usually when I write them I either get no response or I get referred back to their offices in the west since they’re completely under imperialist rule in one form or the other. So one is a stranger in kufr land and one is a stranger in Muslim land.. So what can I say when I see other doctors being killed in Syria or those working the falfel cart here in the U.S except Hasbona Allah wa’nima alwakeel.

  6. University? Bah, humbug!
    You fail to ask the really important questions. Perhaps that’s because you spent lots of time and money on university yourself, so your view is biased towards university education.
    What do you think is the most intellectually challenging work in the world today? I am a medical doctor, and also design computer systems, and I can tell you that systems design is far more challenging than, say, brain surgery. Yet on the one hand, the best systems people I have met did not study what they do at university; and on the other hand, I would not want a brain surgeon without a good theoretical education and years of practical experience to work on me.
    So this makes my first point: since brain surgeons and others like them are few, there is no need for a university education for most occupations today. You may argue that certification is required for this or that, for instance to teach: I answer that without a government to tell us that, hardly anyone would think to require certification as a consequence of patronizing a teacher, any more than one would ask to see the credentials of the chef at a restaurant. (And while teachers can only poison the mind, and the poison can in most cases be washed away, chefs can poison the body too.)
    Next, one should ask: could one’s time be better spent than at a university being read to out of books one would hardly choose to read? And in most cases the answer must be a resounding yes, as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs would for good reasons of their own tell you. Now I am not saying that everyone must be a billionaire entrepreneur, but that one should spend the brightest, strongest, most productive years of one’s life learning, doing, preparing, so that a young man who starts to acquire the skills of an occupation at, say, age 16, should be ready to marry and raise a family at age 24. If he’s not, he’s wasted his time. If he does this, he would have spent 8 years earning, learning and maturing, whereas his cousin in the university would have wasted 8 years and come away with a fine talent for wrangling, but no skills or aptitudes anyone wants to pay for. This is my second point, and from the point of view of the student, the most important one.
    My third point is that most university educations are a sheer waste of time and money. Why spend money to read books you could have read yourself for nothing? Do you do it so you can write a dissertation on it, and have your dissertation certified by a twit who didn’t ever get a real job? It’s not for nothing that the very idea of a university education has become devalued. In dealing with government agencies, I keep on running into clerks with PhDs, so that in most meetings there will be at least one per person. Yet between them the owners of this paperwork often appear to lack the intelligence necessary to run a microwave oven. These days, every nobody is a Dr. Nobody, and the thing is, our young people have noticed it, and it has engendered contempt in them.
    So I say to parents: send your children out to learn skills, to learn how to get on with people, to learn how to sell, to suffer a little, to learn to persevere. Then they will succeed without a degree. If later in life they feel the lack of one, there are many avenues of part-time study or distance learning.
    And I say to the young people: time is your most precious resource. Spend 6 or 8 years constructing a strong capable confident persona, which can only be done by acquiring the skill you need to earn a living; and then you will be more than a match in life for your comrade who decided that pursuing a scrap of paper was more important than living.
    And the funny thing is – all things being equal, in time to come those who follow this advice will be more prolific, more successful at raising families, happier, more stable, than the paper-chasers. The latter will tend to extinction – an outcome greatly to be desired.

  7. testing
    my comments never appear – why not?

  8. Miss Farzana Jalil

    Higher Education
    Totally disagree with many of the points raised in this article, alhamdulillah I am a qualified optometrist and have been practising for 4 years. Without a University Education I would not able to do this job so my sole reason for going to Uni was not to get a high paid job (which alhamdulillah I do have) but it was because i wanted to be in a profession where I can give back to the community, help others, help people see and give them the gift of sight, etc. I also disagree with the statement “one can study in order to secure the highest possible salary, measuring their academic success with how much money they make in their field of work. Such a person will never find contentment.” This is not true, alhamdulillah I am very happy and content with what i earn. So content that I even turned down promotions and opportunities where my employers wanted me to go into management and take on more responsibilty but I told them I am happy where I am. Then I went back to Uni instead and decided to do my MSc in Clinical Optometry, which is very expensive but I am doing something I enjoy and this is not with the intention to earn more money aftrewards, cos most likely i will still be on the same salary after I graduate!

  9. Well written but poor comparison
    Salaamun ‘Alaik,

    Maa Shaa Allah, it was well written and indeed a great reminder for those currently in university, pursuing higher education. However, I disagree as to how you have compared the university in IK and a university in Makkah. One which teaches “secular” sciences and the other which teaches “religious” sciences. Ofcourse the end goal will be different and that just goes without saying.


  10. Jaafar El-Murad

    Islam’s View on Higher Learning?
    Assalamu alaikum wa rahmat Allahi wa barakatuhu.
    I was attracted by the title of this article, since I work in HE. I have to say that I found it rather one-sided. You do redress the imbalance somewhat in your concluding paragraphs, but unfortunately not everyone will get that far – they will simply conclude that you (and possibly Islam) – are not in favour of universities education. Why do I say your argument appears one-sided? You say it yourself: “Having discussed some of the ideals in the UK about a University education”. You only “discussed” the view that HE is about getting a better paid job. That is a sweeping and inaccurate statement. Most educators in this country believe that education has a value in its own right, quite distinct from an enhanced earning potential. If what you say were true, everyone would be signing up for courses in banking and finance, and no-one would be studying history, geography, chemistry, literature, et cetera. Where would we be without graduates in these subjects?
    You cite the hadith ‘I seek refuge in You [Allah] from […] the knowledge which does not benefit…’ – but a great deal, if not most knowledge gained at university does benefit. To take your extreme case, even earning high salaries “benefits” – not only the one who earns it, but also those he or she supports directly, and also indirectly, by enabling the channeling of funds into the mosques, the community and the Islamic centres.
    However, you are right to stress that the pursuit of wealth per se is unlikely to lead to happiness – in this dunia or in the next, and Allah warns us of this Himself in the Quran in Surat at-Takathur. But lets not confuse the pursuit of wealth with the pursuit of education.

  11. Beautiful
    Jazakumullahu khayran. Beautiful article and a great reminder.

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