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Islamic Education Pt 8: Differences between the Liberal and Islamic Education

This aim of this article is to explore the debate between the two philosophies of education: liberal/secular and Islamic, as set out in this series by discussing their criticisms of each other. Outlined below are two brief summaries of each belief system. The terms secular/Western and liberal will be used interchangeably, implying the same meaning.

It needs to be understood that the secularist approach is far from being neutral.  Similar to other religions and belief systems, secularism too holds a certain world-view and promotes a particular philosophy and way of life. Secularism has its foundations rooted in the elevation of ‘reason’, and as Mabud (1992) puts it, ‘secular education is supposed to ‘rescue’ human beings from the ‘shackles’ of religion and religious beliefs and practices, often viewed as ‘irrational’.’[1]  This results in the denial of the ‘absolute and immutable norms’ of religion. Laws are formulated as society changes, morals and values have no clear definitions since there is nothing to anchor them in except the altering beliefs of the ‘reason’.  Mabud concludes in his evaluation of secularist society by stating, ‘in this scheme of things human beings are but the end product of an aimless, Godless, process of evolution, mere earthly creatures, temporal beings possessed of mind and body but no soul or spirit.’

An Islamic philosophy of life is deeply rooted in the metaphysical realms of reality.  God is the ultimate provider for mankind though they may not recognize this. Islamic belief promotes certain moral values that are constant, they do not alter over time and are treated immutable by Muslims. According to Islam, society should conform to the moral and ethical norms and not the other way round.  Reason is subjugated by revelation, even if it appears contrary to the human mind, this is because the Muslim is aware that the human faculties of the mind are limited and bound by time and that God who is unlimited knows what is better for His creation.  Islamic theology treats this submission as the ultimate freedom – freeing the human mind from submitting to the desires and passions of other created beings.  

A critique of liberal education from an Islamic perspective

The main criticism of secular education lies in its intrinsic nature, being Godless and as a result it is seen to deliver man ‘first from the religious and then metaphysical control over his reason and his language.[2]   

The primary reliance of liberal education upon the faculties of reason alone in order to discover what is labeled as ‘truth’. This restricts reality to the physical domain being only ‘sensual experience, scientific procedure or processes of logic’.[3] This means reality is fixated upon observable objects derived via empirical methods of enquiry implying a total negation upon anything metaphysical simply because it cannot be detected.

Liberal education’s heavy emphasis upon relativism permeates through the whole educational process. Claiming absolute truth is avoided, thus private beliefs and opinions are treated as equally justifiable and therefore truth can be said to be subjective.  We will look into this claim in the following section with regards to holding belief in anything on the condition it can be falsified. Islam treats this position as totally incorrect because the problems are obvious: if everyone’s opinions are correct based upon their own understandings then how does one ascertain what is true and what is not. One wonders how it could be possible to construct a society that will be stable and built upon truth.  As a result, ‘the one who shouts the loudest and longest will prevail.’[4]

Individualism is celebrated and emphasis is laid upon the freedom of individual choice, this means that there are no absolute authorities in matters of morals and values and how to live one’s life; therefore an authoritarian approach is avoided. 

It could be argued that Descartes aided the creation of the ‘I’ culture when he made man the starting point, thus providing in man the artificial concept that makes him feel that he is the centre of everything resulting in ‘self before everything is the only truth, disguised as “enlightened self-interest.”[5] 

Liberal education encourages the individual to become intellectually and morally autonomous, allowing the freedom of the individual to choose the actions, which they perceive as valuable to them. As rational thinking is the ‘order of the day’, people are encouraged to test their religious beliefs against the rational principles. It is said that without this ability the individual could develop ‘blind reliance on authority’.[6]According to Islam if an educational system’s prime focus is upon material pursuits to the exclusion of spiritual and moral values then the system has failed in nurturing the human soul which will lead to man’s destruction and a state of anarchy in moral and ethical values.

A critique of Islamic education from a secularist perspective.

Cook (1999) details several criticisms that one could highlight if Islamic education is viewed from a secularist perspective. Most of the criticisms fall into two areas, logistical and philosophical. The logistical criticisms are mainly regarding the implementation of such an educational system and the perceived difficulties which might arise whereas the philosophical criticisms actually object to the main core belief structure.

The logistical objections are issues such as barriers to implementation with regards to political, cultural, linguistic diversity within the ummah.  Muslim countries are said to be overcrowded with inadequate facilities to completely overhaul the educational systems in place.  There is also no clarity as to how an Islamic educational system will operate within a pluralistic society and how it will interact with minorities living under such system. It is also seen as not preparing students for employment when they complete their education; society needs individuals with forms of knowledge other than Islamic theology. 

These criticisms are raised mainly due to a lack of understanding of how an Islamic educational process would work. Most academics and researchers possibly look at certain countries that are said to be operating a religious educational system and base their judgments upon them. They do not realize that some of these systems could well have cultural tendencies attached to them. If religious text and examples of what the Prophet (peace be upon him) said regarding this matter were used one would see that minorities would not be marginalized, and that Islamic education incorporates all subjects known as ‘secular’ such as mathematics, languages, the sciences etc. Linguistic and cultural barriers are easily overcome by teaching in the language of the people and adhering to the local customs so long as they do not violate Islamic tenets. Europe is a classical example of a multitude of cultures and languages, yet the philosophies pertaining to the objectives of education could be said to be the same.

The philosophical criticisms run at a much deeper level therefore certain core religious beliefs are challenged. It is said that there are many difference of opinions within Muslims, some want to follow Western ideals, some are traditionalists, while some could be of extremist views. Each type would want to implement its own opinion, as it would satisfy what they deem as the correct opinion.  It is also claimed that Islam is very rigid and has an absolutist posture; it claims its beliefs are infallible implying that others are fallible and views itself as the only one truth implying other faiths are false. This way of viewing things would result in intolerance towards other religious beliefs. 

The critics also claim that the Islamic faith is based upon beliefs that are unproven and that there is no critical scrutiny allowed of the faith. This, they argue is the antithesis of what ‘education’ stands for.  They also ‘take issue with Islam’s narrow transcendental justification of education’.[7] They also raise objections to the limited scope of Islamic education, as its only goal is to inspire virtue and not the many other aspects that education could also achieve. The last point that Cook raises is that Islam does not credit knowledge for its own sake but adds the condition of acting on it to benefit others. This is seen as a problem for those people who might like to acquire knowledge for its own sake.

Mawdudi, a well-known and controversial Islamic thinker of the late 20th century emphasized the incompatibilities between both philosophies. ‘For Mawdudi “Islam views the problem from a different perspective; it has its own distinct concepts, an angle of vision, a starting point, an intuition matrix, all of which are diametrically opposed to the West”.’[8]

For a secularist, belief is limited to what they can perceive, faith would never be justifiable because of a lack of empirical evidence; their mind only lives within the physical realms of reality.  On the other hand those who have acquired faith and belief in the Islamic tradition will perceive the physical reality through the lens of the metaphysical reality that they adhere to. This does not necessarily imply that individuals adhering to each worldview will be totally incompatible with each other; it means that the individuals will be in the pursuit of alternative goals, maybe like going into a supermarket, each individual would end up with different goods, maybe sharing the isles during their visit based upon their objectives.

The most pertinent and potent criticism of Islamic education from the liberal perspective is that it indoctrinates. As stated previously the general aim of a liberal/secular education is to instill autonomy through the use of critical analysis implying that an ‘educated’ individual will be one who is autonomous.

Islamic education attempts to preserves the basic structure of society by conserving all that is worthwhile in basic values and institutions, by transmitting them to the next generation and by renewing culture afresh whenever degeneration, stagnation or loss of values occur.[9] It is interesting to notice a similarity in al-Attas’ statement regarding education and the term ‘worthwhile’. We saw in previous articles that Peters’ model of education also used the same term. At this stage one could assume that the understanding of ‘education’ is generally similar as a process of instilling in the next generations of what a society perceives as ‘worthwhile’.

It is here that there are stark differences between the two models of education. It could be said that ‘worthwhile’ according to a liberal society implies a materialistic benefit pertaining to the earthly life of an individual. This is contrary to the Islamic understanding of the same term which implies a good afterlife and therefore, both of these models are in a pursuit of diametrically opposite goals. In their relevant pursuits there are many places where their paths meet and share the same route.  For example Islam encourages a worldly pursuit on the condition that it does not obstruct the final goal in the afterlife. There are individuals that have taken an extreme position either by shunning and abstaining from the worldly life or by following merely worldly pursuits and adopting the Islamic tradition to carry out certain rituals. However like with most things moderation is recommended and exemplified, as Islamic theology states, in the example of the Prophet (peace be upon him).

We saw in this section the importance of education within Islam, the depth of the concept of education and the emphasis that it places on the life hereafter.  We also discussed the spiritual side of the human soul and how Islam addresses its education. It would be much clearer to see the difference between both philosophies: the liberal and the Islamic. One could also begin to appreciate the richness and depth paid to the spiritual side of the human, something that a liberal education acknowledges but finds difficultly in explaining. The discussion between the liberal and the Islamic perspective highlighted the deep ideological and philosophical differences each system believes in and propagates. These variances have been around for centuries and it appears that they are here to stay unless either of the two systems make concessions, which too seems philosophically impossible.

It is also commonly understood within liberal education that the antithesis of education is ‘indoctrination’, where the critical faculties of an individual have been paralyzed and knowledge is embedded into the individual without any rational analysis.  It is from this perspective that Islamic education is considered indoctrinatory as individuals are made to believe in ‘unprovable propositions’.[10]  Cook adds, ‘If schools seek to initiate students into a particular Islamic conception of the world with the intention of committing them to those beliefs, this is not education, according to secularists, but indoctrination.’[11]  The assumption and implications are such that all Islamic educational institutes indoctrinate and prevent their students from critical analysis and being autonomous.



Notes: This is the eighth article in the Islamic Education Series. Click here to read part seven.
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Al-Attas. S. (1979). Recommendations of Committees 1, 3 & 4. In S.M. Al-Attas. (Ed.), Aims and Objectives of Islamic Education. Jeddah: Hodder and Stoughton. 157-161

Ali, M. (1998). Mawdudi’s Philosophy of Education: The Dynamics of Change and Leadership. Muslim Educational Quarterly, 15(4), 24-40

Cook, B. (1999). Islamic verses Western conceptions of education: Reflections on Egypt. International Review of Education, 45(3/4), 339-357

Mabud. A.S. (1992). A Muslim Response to the Education Reform Act 1988. British Journal of Religious Education, 14(2), 74-98.

Watson. B. (1987). Education and Belief. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

White. J. (1982). The Aims of Education Restated. London: Routledge & Paul Kegan.

[1] p. 89
[2] al-Attas 1985, p. 15
[3] Cook 1999
[4] Watson 1987, p. 29
[5] quoted by Ali in Cook 1999, p. 350
[6] White 1982, p. 50
[7] Cook 1999, p. 353
[8] Cited in Ali 1998, p. 36
[9] al-Attas, 1979
[10] Barrow 1981, p. 147
[11] Cook 1999, p. 352


About Faisal Siddique

One comment

  1. 'Umar Abdessalaam

    An excellent distillation of the arguments.

    I appreciate the author taking the time to set this out – I’ll definitely be bookmarking this for future reference. May Allah ‘azza wa jall reward you for your efforts.

    I look forward to the next instalment.

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