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[This entry is a selected summary and reflection of the RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture (CSNL) given by Prof. Wan Mohd Nor on 10th April 2021.]

by Hamida C. Alonto (RZS-CASIS Alumni from the Philippines)

Prof. Dr. Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud’s lecture was based on the third chapter of his book, The Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas. He discussed the worldview of Islam and other worldviews with regard to the meaning and purpose of education, the concept of manhood and citizenship, and their impact on the content and methods of higher education. 

The Meaning and Purpose of Education

In illustrating the history and development of the Western philosophy of education, Prof. Dr. Wan Mohd Nor cited the analyses of notable figures in theology, education and history in the West. He highlighted the study of German educationalist and Harvard University professor Robert Ulich, who wrote extensively on the history and philosophy of education. In his book, The Education of Nations, Ulich described the forces that shaped the educational systems and common intellectual heritage of the West. According to Ulich, the alienation of Western civilization from faith shifted the Western conception of man. This was reflected in their educational system and thus, education that was initially faith-based gradually became more secular.  

Prof. Dr. Wan likewise highlighted writing of Swiss theologian, Heinrich Emil Brunner, who is regarded as one of the foremost Christian Reformers in the world.  Brunner acknowledges that Christianity evidently regards education with such importance, as demonstrated by the education of their religious figures such as popes and priests. Education is certainly an important means of conveying the Christian ethics of right and wrong among its adherents. However, Brunner admitted that there is lack of clarity on the Christian concept of education,  the formulation of which is not conceived from a clear articulation of the nature and purpose of man. 

Prof. Dr. Wan also discussed the writing of American Historian Caroll Quirigley in his book Tragedy and Hope. Quirigley explains that despite having solved many of its problems and achieving many great things, Western civilization has yet to know how to raise children as responsible adults due to an ambiguous understanding of what it means to be human and Machiavelli in his Discourse on Livy blamed it on the insufficient guidance by the church. 

Prof. Dr. Wan noted that in Islam, a distinct concept of education was articulated from its early years, through the Qur’an, and clarified further through the Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).  Formulating a philosophy of education necessitates a clear concept of knowledge as well as a true understanding of the nature and purpose of man; which was conveyed from the advent of Divine Revelation in Islam. This understanding continues to be elaborated upon by Muslim scholars and thinkers over generations, a tradition which Prof. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas is part of. Prof. Dr. Wan gave the example of the 8th century theologian and Jurist, Imam Abu Hanifah, and his treatise on teaching and learning in al-‘Alim wa al-Muta’alim (, as well as 11th century thinker, Imam al-Ghazali’s work ‘Ihya ulum ad-Din’ as examples of important scholarly works that revive what has already been established in a longstanding and rich tradition of Islamic scientific scholarship. In his book Knowledge Triumphant, Franz Rosenthal expressed an observation based on his studies that among many traditions, only Islam provided a profound and comprehensive meaning of education. 

This book is published by CASIS-HAKIM Publications. To purchase, visit the CASIS Bookstore

The Concept of Man and Citizenship

To understand the character and direction of the philosophy of education in the West, Prof. Dr. Wan began with a discussion on its historical background. Western secular education is rooted in Platonic and Aristotelian thought, where the city, the state or empire is the locus of existence. There is no conception of a hereafter or life after death, therefore one must devote oneself to the service of the state.  An act of suicide, for example, is thus considered a sin against the state. 

Prof. Dr. Wan cited some of the proponents of the modern versions of the society or state-centered position like American philosophers and educators William T. Harris, Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. There are also other variations in this position, such as the modern social-reconstructionist school of George S. Count in the U.S., Paulo Freire of Brazil and Jürgen Habermas of Germany. Prof. Dr. Wan noted that most of the national systems of education today are, in fact, based on this position. 

This society or state-centered position is one of two kinds of theoretical positions concerning the purpose of education.  The other is child or person-centered, which is espoused by most of the dominant religions of the world. Prof. Dr. Wan cited Jean Jacques Rousseau, as the 18th century philosopher’s work not only had a great influence on the leaders of the French revolution but also had a profound impact on education in the West. In fact, the modern secular roots of person-centered education in the West can be traced to his Romantic philosophy, along with other influences such as the psychology of Abraham Maslow and the pedagogy of A.S. Neil. Rousseau’s work addressed the achievement and protection of human freedom, which can be accomplished through two routes: one political and the other through child-development and education. His work Émile, which he himself described as his treatise on education, is about autonomy— the achievement of personal happiness and wisdom. Religion was also a part of his philosophy of education, however the role it plays in Rousseau’s conception is more of a personal religion and does not involve revelation or the dogmas of the church. 

Prof. Dr. Wan also mentioned the student-centered position in the thought of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who emphasized an individualistic education.  His thoughts on the Christian faith, for example, involve a repeated renewal of one’s relationship with one’s belief, instead of the rote-learning of dogma. Kierkegaard believes it is an individual responsibility to know where one stands with regard to existential, ethical and religious issues.

The thoughts of one the philosopher and Catholic theologian Augustine of Hippo, also known as St. Augustine, had a profound influence not only on philosophy and Christianity, but also in the history of education in the West.  In his work, The City of God, Augustine discussed two cities, one heavenly (the city of God) and the other worldly (the city of man). Man must seek to be a good citizen of God in the City of Heaven, and the church will educate and lead him to eternal goodness, which is God. After the French revolution however, the church had to adapt to the demands of the state and thus it conveyed that man must not only seek to be a good citizen of the City of Heaven but also to be a good citizen of the state. In Christianity, the knowledge of God is important in achieving liberation. The lack of clarity with regard to the nature of God, however, has led to varied interpretations and notions among its adherents, as surveys reveal. One of the points of contention is the problem of evil— reconciling the existence of evil in the presence of an omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipotent God. 

While the core values of Eastern religions include the elevation of the self in the spiritual and moral aspect of one’s existence, the stability of the state however, is also very important in their worldview. In Islam, it is understood that all prophets sent by Allah s.w.t. were cognizant of His nature, the nature of paradise and hellfire, as well as the existence of other prophets. This is due to the fact that they came from a single source and had a single purpose.  When thinkers, on the other hand, speak about goodness and being a good man, it is only within the context of the existence which they have knowledge of. They certainly deserve respect, but it is wrong to speculate about them being prophets. Confucius and Buddha, for example, are indeed great teachers, however their concept of educational development is limited in this respect.  

Prof. Dr. Wan then discussed the two trends in the person-centered position within philosophy of education.  The aim of the first kind is to prepare students to be more economically successful than their predecessors— a trend that is quite common in Muslim countries. The second trend is aimed at the well-balanced development of the child— an educational philosophy common in liberal countries in the West. Prior to the modernization of Muslim countries, the eminence of a community is built through the development of the personal qualities of individuals in that community. The refinement of the personal qualities of individuals is done through the acquisition of knowledge through proper education. Possessing knowledge was of such significance that the power of the sultan was based on the depth of his knowledge of Islam.  However, as Europeans colonized the Muslim world, colonial ideas of education gradually influenced the educational systems.  

Through colonization, Western ideals gradually altered Islamic institutions and replaced Islamic values; as in the case of the Ottoman Empire, where the shift was actually sanctioned by the Muslim leaders themselves despite the opposition of the ‘ulama and non-Muslim religious leaders. The 19th century Tanzimat reforms introduced by Ottoman Sultans Selim III and Mahmoud II involved the importation of liberal French ideals into Turkish society and marked the beginning of secularism in Turkey. The Napoleonic code replaced Turkish law and the educational system gradually transformed. Through the influence of Western bureaucrats, students were compelled to study in order to acquire an ijaza; however, its acquisition no longer involved the moral and spiritual development of the individual.

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With an education that focuses on the development and success of the state, the graduates cannot function as anything else but government servants. Egyptian reformist and scholar Muhammad Abduh asserted that such an educational system produces individuals who are disconnected to the social milieu.  Furthermore, the shift in teacher education such that it neglects the role of spiritual education of the individual results in the alienation of Muslims not only to their local environment but also to the natural world. The scholar Muhammad Iqbal’s thoughts on the development of personality likewise fall under the person-centered philosophy of education. Prof. Dr. Wan noted that Iqbal’s ideas on the development of personality and the self are in fact not modern ideas, per se, rather they are influenced by higher Sufi thinking. 

Finally, Prof. Dr. Wan elaborated on the philosophy of education from the worldview of Islam as clarified by Prof. Dr. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas.  Education in Islam is neither purely child or student-centered nor purely state-centered; it is not one or the other, but both. While the community is paramount in the development of the individual, the success of the state ultimately depends on the quality of the individual.  It has been clear from the beginning of revelation that education in Islam involves both religious and secular aspects without any dichotomy. 

Al-Attas’ discovered that, unlike the intellectual history of the West where different methodological approaches and positions emerged and replaced one another, the intellectual history of the Islamic tradition is characterized by unity.  All representatives of the Islamic tradition have applied various methods in their study: religious and scientific, empirical and rational, deductive and inductive, subjective and objective. Likewise, the characteristic feature of al-Attas’ educational philosophy and practice is grounded on what he termed ‘the tawhid method of knowledge.’  This method dissolves false dichotomy in different aspects of knowledge, and his work emphasized and demonstrated this.  Prof. Dr. Wan therefore advised the audience to be mindful of what ideas one accepts and adapts.  The belief, for example, that the natural scientific method is more objective and of higher validity than religion is an unqualified assertion. There are certain things that one can accept about modern science, but one must be careful not to blindly accept its philosophical assumptions. 

Next CSNL will be on the 29th May 2021 or via Zoom, click here to register. To read the previous summaries of the 10th RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture Series:

Below are the summary for the 11th RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture Series

  1. March 2021“Knowing Knowledge Through its Classifications”