The New Era and the Challenges
Our time is the mark of many eras – ranging from globalization, free trade, internet of things, artificial intelligence and urbanization. Islam and Muslims are not exempted from facing these myriads of changes. While many Muslim professionals, experts, scientists and social scientists, entrepreneurs and leaders are coping in the mainstream, we can still see Muslims in parts of the world who are struggling in sudden urbanization, social issues, deprivation of fundamental rights, poverty and conflicts. A further challenge is the hijack of Islam by terrorist groups, portrayal of Islam under negative light by the media and Islamophobia.
No matter how much blame is put on the external factors of power, geo-politics, conspiracies, imperialism and other historical events that caused to the weakness of the Muslim ummah today, we could not run away from addressing the internal declinations of the qualities of ummah. We are suffering against, to name a few, weak implementation of the true message of Islam by Muslims, disunity, intellectual lethargy and poor leadership. Against this backdrop, our task in the academic institution is to evaluate how Islamic education could fit in the bigger picture as a mechanism to inculcate values, competence and intellectual reformation in facing the challenges of today’s era.
‘Ilm in Islam: Dynamics and Connection to Reality
Islamic Education is dynamic. ‘Ilm in Islam is a combination of tarbiyyah (nurturing), ta’lim (learning/ instruction), and ta’dib (good action). ‘Ilm is a wide concept which encapsulates absolute comprehension and understanding by the mind, linked with soul and conscience, and later manifested in good actions. It includes all domains of thinking, competence and conscience with clear purposive direction of God consciousness. In other words, ‘ilm connects with reality.
Along this line, Muhammad Iqbal in his writing “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” noted that the search of knowledge and rational foundations is ‘an expression of the whole man’. This is encouraged by sense-perception using ‘hearing’ and ‘sight’ as the most valuable divine gifts from God.
The constant appeal to reason in the Quran is a Quranic method to deepen aspirations of the universe around the existence of man. Questions that we ask in the pursuit of ‘Ilm are, what is the character and general structure of the universe we live in? How are we related to it? And what kind of conduct that befits the place we occupy?
To respond to reality, Islamic education must include and relate studies of sciences, economics, politics, law, mathematics and other aspects of sciences and social science which are instrumenal to the development of the ummah. Having this in mind, Islamic education must be beyond orientation of examination, so as not to be in isolation from reality.
Islamic Education and Responsibilities as Citizens
Being connected to reality also includes how to interact with the society, being participative in nation building, understanding the contemporary situations (waqi’) and committing to social justice.
Malaysia is blessed with a peaceful multicultural society, stable economic growth, good climate, fertile soil and abundance of natural resources. The people in the country believes in democracy and uphold the federal constitution, which has always been admired by other nations. Living in respect, love and mutual care is the only way to sustain this beautiful coexistence, and with Muslims representing most of the Malaysian population, the Muslims must lead the Islamic value that celebrates diversity. This must be an agenda in the Malaysian Islamic education.
In our days where Muslims and others live in a shared context, the Muslims cannot but relate positively to the diversity of religions and cultures. Islamic education is the mechanism to bring Islamic reforms in the country, nurturing professional Muslims who are passionate in nation building with other races and capable of articulating on how Islam is to be presented in a multicultural country like Malaysia.
Islamic education must be able to bring the message of community spirit and brotherhood that transcends any labels of identity or race. This is in line with the Quranic encouragement to ‘know each other’ and to understand diversity.
Allah swt says in Surah Al-Hujurat,
O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted. (Al-Quran 49:13).
Islam must be portrayed as an advocator of peace, justice and human dignity which is meant for all mankind regardless of differences (Surah Al-Anbiya: 107). This is also in line with the purpose of the Muslim ummah described described in the Al-Quran, as the enjoiner of good (al-khayr) (Surah Al-Imran: 110).
Especially in the information era today, we have to educate ourselves to handle information wisely and to respond to issues with full understanding and responsibility. This is crucial to mantain good relationship with each other and to avoid conflict. In addressing differences, dialogues, discussions and discourses are the appropriate mechanisms. While we are allowed to have differences of opinion, we must be cautious that such difference will not lead to hatred, enmity and disunity. In relation to this, the late Syeikh Taha Jabir al Alwani in his book “The Ethics of Disagreement in Islam” urged us to take the examples from the early devoted Muslims. He mentioned, “The early Muslims did have disagreements. But theirs were differences of opinion and not reasons for estrangement and schism. They differed but they did not separate.”
The Muslim world today needs intellectuals who can develop the society, who could see the real perspectives of things. What we need is not only Muslim professionals and scientists but Muslim professionals and scientists with ‘intellectual pursuit’. To be intellectual is not alien to Islam, as Islam constantly requires man to read, ponder and reflect the universe.
Islamic education must be able to grasp maqasidic thinking which allows deliberation on the meaning of Quranic injunctions. This would result to a more comprehensive worldview of Islam that takes into consideration the reasonings, all factors- internal and external of a ruling, and its dynamics in adapting to different factual circumstances. By understanding Islam from this viewpoint, it allows the domain of ‘laws and legal rulings’ to harmonise with the Islamic universal values , ethical goals and holistic characteristics. Eventually, it will materialise the belief that Islam is relevant at all times and space, compassionate, inclusive and progressive.
Rigid interpretation of Islam will be detrimental to both religion and the people. A narrow appreciation of diversity and statehood for instance, would pave the way to radicalism and extremism. This is the unwanted scenario of the Muslim ummah – an ummah that is contaminated with elements of Ta’assub (bigoted adherence), Tafarruq (splitting) and Takfir (declaration of another Muslim as non-believer). This will eventually deviate Muslims away from the real societal issues that needs attention.Thus, it is the role of Muslim scholars to lead the society in avoiding ‘exessiveness’ or ‘ghuluw’ in behaviour and religion. Allah swt says in Surah Al-Maidah:
Say, “O People of the Scripture, do not exceed limits in your religion beyond the truth and do not follow the inclinations of a people who had gone astray before and misled many and have strayed from the soundness of the way.”(Al-Maidah: 77)
Moving Forward- The Question of Continuity and Change
Malik Bennabi, in his book “The Problems of Ideas in the Muslim World” compared the Muslim society with Japan which started its modern renaissance around the same time , as ‘students of the Western school of civilization’. He noted that Japan has today become one of the leading economic power leaving many Muslim countries behind, with admiration of how knowledge is gained from the west while remaining faithful to its culture, tradition and the past. In this regard, he mentioned:
“Definitely, we never make history by simply following in the other’s footsteps on the beaten tracks, rather this is possible only by opening new paths. Such a task is feasible on the basis of authentic and efficacious ideas that would solve all moral as well as developmental problems of a society which is in need of reconstruction.”
A fresh, contemporary understanding of Islam is important for the future. Muslim scholars should pay attention to the question of continuity and change. On change, we have to constantly remind ourselves of the Quranic message in Surah Al-Ra’d: verse 11,
‘Verily God will not change the condition of men, till they change what is in themselves.’
Islam in its nature never restricts exploration of knowledge, including new areas of fiqh. We must be innovative, responsive and creative to contribute to its development. The Muslim ummah must have the clarity of mind on what kind of society that it wants to achieve, prepared to face the changes and explore bravely new ways to the aspired qualities with mastery of knowledge and virtue.