Education, Islam and Criticality

Can a new kind of integrated knowledge-creation occur, that is outside as well as inside the post-Enlightenment western tradition? Book review.

Martin Rose
23 November 2017


Moheen Reeyad speaks in Bangla Wikipedia School Program at Government Muslim High School, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2015. Wikicommons/ Motiur Rahman Oni. Some rights reserved.

A review of two books:(ed) Panjwani, Revell, Gholami and Diboll, Education and Extremisms: Rethinking Liberal Pedagogies in the Contemporary World (Routledge, 2017); and Z Sardar & J Henzell-Thomas, Rethinking Reform in Higher Education: From Islamization to the Integration of Knowledge (IIIT, 2017)

Some students coming from … a background with very limited exposure to subjects like literature, philosophy and art, may experience the world in fixed binaries of right and wrong, or true and false, rather than in shades of grey and moral complexities … in short the works of many religious scholars and presentation of the world in scientific and technical education mirror each other ... Farid Panjwani

If you are taught not what to think, but how to think, critical thought can protect the vulnerable and impressionable from believing the false promise of a place in paradise. Tobias Ellwood MP

The intersection of Islam and education is a fragile, difficult place. On the one hand is a great and humane educational tradition, stretching back to world centres of learning in Baghdad, Cairo, Fes, Nissapur, Qum, Samarkand and Herat, among many other cities that flourished while Rome was a dangerous, sheep-infested ruin and London a small, unhygienic port. On the other is the contemporary phenomenon of terrorism and the widely shared sense that in some way education is one of its motors, and one of several keys to understanding, confronting and defusing it.

Exploring how these two perspectives fit together is a more pressing challenge than either one alone. All the writers in the two books under review propose changes to the way we educate the young; changes to the skills – and above all the critical skills – that we offer them at school and university; and changes to the ethics of education. Such changes would, they argue, alter the landscape dramatically for the better.

At bottom the question is about the purpose of education. Today, education is largely seen as a practical, market-orientated transaction, focused at the planning level on its benefits to the national economy and at the individual level on its value in terms of augmented earning-power. This ‘neoliberal,’ marketized education has become so universal, so much part of the international development consensus, as well as the national discourse, that we can easily forget that in its modern, red-in-tooth-and-claw form, it is really quite new. Today it is a truism to say that a country’s prosperity and economic growth are driven by the proportional size of its graduate population and that striving for a greater and greater university enrolment is unarguably a good thing. This was not always so.

It is certainly a ‘good thing’ for marketised universities in developed countries, but it is less clear that it is altogether good for their students, and particularly the long tail of graduates with less good degrees from less good universities. In the UK, 34% of graduates (the CIPD, quoting the European Social Survey of 2010, reckons 58.8% at that date) are ‘under-employed’ in ‘non-graduate’ jobs, the result of impetuous sector growth in an ever more ‘free’ market.

But the heart of the argument is outside Europe. Between 2005 and 2015 the number of students in the world grew from 100 million to 207 million. In China, which produces over 7 million graduates every year, there is a dire phenomenon known as ‘the Ant Generation,’ large numbers of woefully under, or un-employed graduates living in communal poverty awaiting chimærical opportunity. Across the world growth in student numbers continues, if a little more slowly, while the world’s economies, already saturated with graduate labour of uneven quality, cannot absorb them all. As Ken Roberts puts it, “Underemployment is the twenty first century normality for youth in the labour market.” Marginal, vulnerable, resentful.

Taken at its neoliberal face value, the astonishing levels of graduate under and un-employment suggest failure through reckless over-supply to the labour market (though of course in some eyes over-supply and falling labour cost are highly desirable, rather than reckless). In much of North Africa, for example, the unemployment rate increases with each level of education attained, and this is not unique to the region. It should not surprise us that dissatisfied graduates, their expectations raised by the implicit rewards that Higher Education offers, and then dashed by an unwelcoming labour market, look for ways to express their anger at what seems to them like a broken contract.

Across much of the Middle East and southern Europe in the last six years, youth unrest has filled squares and streets, driven among other factors by unemployment, and the lack of opportunity that education brings with it. That a small percentage, both in the region and in countries of diaspora, should look for more extreme approaches to this congeries of problems should not surprise us either. 48.5% of jihadis from the Middle East are graduates (or had some HE). This is well above the proportion of graduates in the population as a whole.

Narrowing it down further, Gambetta and Hertog have demonstrated a preponderance of technical graduates (from East and West) amongst jihadis, while finding that graduates in the social sciences and humanities are negligible in number. So the focus of both books, though particularly Panjwani’s, on liberal education and the humanities as nurseries of criticality, is clear and relevant. Panjwani writes that “There seems today to be a deficit of criticality in education in the UK and other heavily neo-liberalised contexts, which promotes a utilitarian and instrumental approach promoting the prime role of education as being linked to employment, career and material advancement.” It is this criticality, or critical thinking (the absence of which is here explicitly attributed to neoliberal education policy) that links the arguments, but also provides the most difficult contradictions.

The link is clear. Gambetta and Hertog suggest strongly that it is the absence of critical intellectual tools, the inability to cope creatively with ambiguity, the predisposition to seek black and white answers, that sculpt the (unkindly labelled) ‘engineering mindset,’ the cast of uncritical binary thinking that at its more extreme is open to influence by malign binary ideologies. Of this critical poverty, Sardar writes “There is ample evidence to suggest that science, engineering and medicine degrees in universities across the Muslim world are taught uncritically, without any context. What is taught is not science as such, but scientism – a blind faith in scientific method.” This may be relatively less so in the UK, but Gambetta’s research seems to demonstrate that there is a wider truth in Sardar’s observation.

Throughout Education and Extremisms runs the belief that education has an increasingly neglected purpose well beyond its present neoliberal job-market orientation; and that only by reversing the Gadarene rush into barren, employment-focused vocationalism can we hope to give schoolchildren and students the intellectual and moral tools to see the blandishments of violent radicals for what they are – simplistic nonsense.

There is a trust here that students of all ages, given the opportunity and the tools to dissect, critique and challenge their environments, will for the most part be proofed against ‘bad ideas.’ But there is also a wan acknowledgement of the fact that those opportunities and tools are not always welcomed when they are deployed upon the student’s own political and social environment: that there is a permanent tension between education as a tool for creating quiet, conformist Muslim citizens, and education as a tool for creating resilient, intellectually and ethically independent Muslim children who will reject ‘extremist narratives.’ This is a wider truth, but needs to shape discussion of the challenges of educating young Muslims both in Europe and in the ‘Muslim world’ itself.


School visit of British Muslim boys to Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, 2009. Wikicommons/ FCO. Some rights reserved.

The contradiction is problematic, and explored at length. Panjwani makes clear the two-edged nature of the sword, writing of “a liberal education for our times, to foster students’ powers of questioning, criticality and imagining egalitarian futures.” (My italics.) Education in the UK has been at least tinged with security-thinking (the PVE agenda, and particularly Prevent, “has effectively placed a duty of care on all practising educationalists in all phases of education from kindergarten to postgraduate to act as the eyes and ears of the Home Office”). Arguably, liberal education is the crucial prophylaxis against the process conceived as ‘radicalisation;’ but equally, it is the toolkit for serious and uncomfortable analysis of our education system and our society. Criticality awakens not just the ‘anti-radicalisation antibodies’ but the will and ability to deconstruct the society in which we live. It is in other words radicalising in itself, but in a different, more traditional and more positive sense of that word.

This sensitivity is visible, too, across the Middle East and beyond in a deep suspicion of the social sciences on the part of autocratic governments. They are seen as encouraging questioning of the status quo and thus destabilising. Education reform in the Gulf, for example, lavishes funds on Tertiary Education, but with much greater emphasis on STEM subjects which are seen (simplistically) as more directly relevant to national development, and (probably wrongly) as less fertile breeding grounds of critical dissent. As an ESCWA report in 2014 put it, “Arab countries that create a hospitable environment for [social science research] are rare. Political repression, censorship and lack of research-based policy hinder the development of such environments.” And, returning for a moment to Gambetta’s research, it is clear that while social science and humanities graduates are negligible in right-wing and Islamist movements, they are the dominant force in revolutionary movements of the left, so perhaps there is some explicable caution in this attitude.

Europe is not the Middle East of course, but traces of analogous attitudes exist. ‘Fundamental British Values’ or FBVs, as defined by OFSTED, and contrasted with the values of extremist Islam, include: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths. ‘Extremism’ embraces vocal as well as active opposition to FBVs: so that there is a whole area of liberal politics and ethics that may not easily be discussed in other than eulogistic terms without the risk of seeming to express ‘extremism.’ But the cultivation of the intellectual criticality necessary to examine and deconstruct ‘bad’ ideas in class, and outside, requires a confidence in the level playing-field of ideas. The obligations placed on teachers to refer ‘vulnerable’ or ‘at risk’ students to Prevent can easily make for a playing-field that seems far from level to young Muslims: as one 7-year old Muslim boy in Bedfordshire recently told his 5-year old brother, as reported in the press, “You can’t say foreign words at school, because you don’t know who you can trust.” Self-censorship is an ever-present danger.

The editors of Education and Extremisms are explicit. “We advocate a renaissance of liberal education as a way forward to equip young people with the criticality necessary to interrogate and critique extremism of all kinds, be it religious or faith-based, political and economic, secular, administrative or governmental.” Philip Wood, in a very interesting essay on teaching early Muslim history to young Muslims at the Agha Khan University in London stresses the use of original source materials, training his students on pre-Muslim Roman and Byzantine texts before asking them to use the same critical methods on early Muslim sources. “Extremism,” he writes, “of all forms, relies on simple narratives that can be widely disseminated because they build on ‘common knowledge.’ Therefore any educational solution to extremism must undermine versions of history that carry straightforward messages of us and them, or good and evil.”

Teachers on his course decline to accept hadith – the serially authenticated oral traditions of the Prophet – as historical sources, and refuse to talk about “the facts of history, but rather in terms of course criticism, multiple sources and the balance of probabilities.” This is destabilising but constructive, and radically alters the student’s intellectual architecture, evoking a resistance to such binary banalities. The same approach to self-appointed contemporary authorities in Islam is explored by Angus Slater through the work of Khalid Abou El Fadl in dismantling their claims to authenticity not on theological grounds, but by demolishing their often preposterous claims to authority outside the traditional ulema. And Daryoush Poor stresses, as central to his notion of criticality, a Popperian approach to truth as a working hypothesis not yet disproven – a deeply destabilising but also very invigorating notion in this context.

Ziauddin Sardar and Jeremy Henzell-Thomas, in Rethinking Reform in Higher Education, start from much the same position on neoliberalism in education and the paucity of critical thinking, and share much diagnosis. They would agree with Sarah Marsden’s crucial observation that “the problem of violence and lack of criticality is not a problem exclusively of the Other: it is about us.”

These two writers are concerned with the intrinsic renovation (though there is argument about the vocabulary) of a Muslim epistemology, a system of knowledge, and a confidence in it, that they see as having been crushed out of Islamic thought by the steamroller of western colonial domination since the seventeenth century. Sardar would like Muslim thinkers to find their way back to the mediæval intellectual traditions of those great centres of learning, Baghdad, Nissapur, Cairo and so on – not in terms of picking up obsolete threads of applied or theoretical knowledge (he is very clear about the bankruptcy of unexamined tradition, especially where it has been superseded by other knowledge), but in rescuing the ethos, the open-mindedness and the criticality that characterised them at their best, so that a new kind of integrated knowledge-creation can occur, that is outside as well as inside the post-Enlightenment western tradition.

Sardar, who is himself a well-known writer on ‘post-normal studies,’ relates this process of epistemological renewal and re-integration to the changing nature of the world, the ‘wicked’ problems that we must solve in the blizzard of complexification that confronts us. Sardar’s central theme is the confluence of the need that he sees for a global paradigm-shift in problem-solving and knowledge-making, with the need for intellectual renewal in the Muslim ummah.


Vault and colored ceiling of the Iwan of an Imamzadeh at the tomb of Omar Khayyam, Nissapur, Iran. Wikicommons/dynamosquito. Some rights reserved.

Like the writers of Education and Extremisms, Sardar is clear about the intellectual suppleness and resilience that a good grounding in the arts and humanities gives to a student. But he is also clear that it is every bit as important to ‘humanise’ the sciences, to integrate the values and techniques of critical enquiry, the appetite for and the understanding of ambiguity. Indeed in an ideal world he wouldn’t make the distinction, looking for the purposeful assembly of a corpus of knowledge and its constant renewal that is integrated, open and imbued with religious and cultural values, though not the often concomitant rigidities of thought.

The conclusion therefore is clear. If we want education to work effectively as a bulwark against the elusive matter known as ‘radicalisation,’ or perhaps better, simply as a training in the identification and rejection of incoherent and malign ideas, then we must trust more. “Extremism and terrorism are at their core both ideological and socio-political issues that must be explored critically if they are to be dealt with meaningfully” (Panjwani). Such critical exploration cannot well take place if inhibited by a forbidden zone of the undiscussable. We must be clear that, in Marsden’s words, “Education’s role lies not in enforcing commitment to certain types of values, but in creating a space where those values can be constructed and critiqued.”

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