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'Thinking Skills' in Islamic Education

Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

Posted Dec 12, 2006

‘Thinking Skills’ in Islamic Education

by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

Increasing emphasis is being placed on ‘Thinking Skills’ in Western education systems, either as a specific program or as a strand ideally woven into all subject areas.

In the UK, for example, one of the factors behind this development is the justifiable concern that the national curriculum has progressively abandoned the philosophy and practice of holistic education and is now dominated by a narrow concept of ‘schooling’ (and its associated testing regime) geared disproportionately to uninspiring utilitarian objectives. Tony Blair has made it clear on more than one occasion that it is the provision of a ‘workforce’ to drive forward national economic performance which is the top priority in his vision of ‘education’.

The negative effect of this target-driven schooling regime on the morale of schoolchildren has been well documented. Disaffection and truancy are rife, and self-harm, depression and even suicide are increasing alarmingly amongst young people.

In his challenging book, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, New York State Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto makes a powerful indictment of the assumptions and structures which underlie modern state schooling in the USA and exposes the same deadening utilitarian agenda which informs British educational policy - an agenda geared to turning children into cogs in an economic machine, children who are dependent, conforming, materialistic, and lacking in curiosity, creativity, imagination, self-knowledge, and powers of intellectual inquiry and reflection.

The thrust for Thinking Skills education has largely focused on the development within schools of a teaching and learning culture which promotes ‘Critical and Creative Thinking’.

This is a welcome development in many ways, and it has to be said that there is a particularly pressing need to revive such a teaching and learning culture in the Muslim world. I say ‘revive’, because, as Muhammad Asad eloquently reminds us in the Foreword to his magnum opus, The Message of the Qur’an, it was the spirit of the Qur’an itself which was the ultimate source of that dynamic revival of the culture of inquiry in Europe: “through its insistence on consciousness and knowledge, it engendered among its followers a spirit of intellectual curiosity and independent inquiry, ultimately resulting in that splendid era of learning and scientific research which distinguished the world of Islam at the height of its cultural vigour; and the culture thus fostered by the Qur’an penetrated in countless ways and by-ways into the mind of medieval Europe and gave rise to that revival of Western culture which we call the Renaissance, and thus became in the course of time largely responsible for the birth of what is described as the ‘age of science’: the age in which we are now living.”

But let us always be aware that the dynamic process of learning and inquiry engendered by the spirit of the Qur’an was a spirit not restricted to a merely ‘rational’ concept of ‘enlightenment’ which in its most debased form has reduced a rich and multi-layered scientia sacra to the poverty of scientism. It was, above all, a spiritual ‘enlightenment’, under which all other levels of enlightenment are subsumed in the natural order, and that superordinate enlightenment is both the origin and goal of an authentic Islamic education, as it is for all truly holistic systems of education in any culture which endeavour to ‘unwrap’ (i.e. ‘develop’ in its original meaning) our full humanness.

There is always the danger that supposedly enhanced ‘thinking’ skills, both critical and creative, if detached from a higher vision of human intellectual and spiritual capacities, will merely be pressed into the service of the same materialistic and utilitarian goals which govern the underlying schooling process and its prevailing ideology.

Indeed, without an understanding of the full range of human intellectual faculties, and without any awareness of the moral and spiritual dimension which animates an authentic vision of human excellence, education in Thinking Skills can rarely go beyond the reductionism which focuses solely on the sharpening of the lower intellectual functions – the level of logical reasoning, argument and analysis which has been so productive in the field of scientific and technological advancement but which cannot encompass the deeper needs of the human soul and spirit.

An authentic Islamic vision of education has the power to re-animate a truly holistic conception of education which encompasses not only the higher intellectual faculties, but also the realisation that human excellence (ihsan) is inseparable from beauty and virtue and should never be limited to an individualistic concept of personal achievement, mastery and success. This is a vision of tawhid, in which cognitive, moral and spiritual functions are all intertwined and interdependent, and necessarily actualised in right action.

“I seek refuge from God from a knowledge which has no use”, said the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him). The useful knowledge he was referring to was not of course merely utilitarian knowledge, but the knowledge which enables us to live as fully human beings under the grace and guidance of our Creator. A solely utilitarian education elevates the least aspect of useful education to the first priority, and, what is worse, reduces the concept of livelihood itself from the ideal of right livelihood to a solely materialistic enterprise in which we become ‘consumers’, enslaved by the larger goal of ‘national economic development’.

Whilst we must give due regard to the cultivation of rational thinking in any proper education system, we must not forget that the Arabic word for ‘intellect’ (‘aql) encompasses not only this lower intellectual level (Latin ratio, Greek dianoia) which depends on the power of definition and conceptualisation endowed on mankind through the divine gift of language, but also the higher organ of moral and spiritual intelligence and insight (intellectus, nous) which at its highest level can be equated with the Heart.  Rumi expresses it in his typically concrete style:  “The Intellect of intellect is your kernel; the intellect is only the husk.”

In a detailed study of the concept of ‘aql in an earlier issue of Islamica (Vol. 3. Number 1, Summer 1999, pp 49-64), Karim Douglas Crow notes the re-appearance of the term ‘wisdom’ in recent descriptions of human intelligence to connote “a combination of social and moral intelligence, or in traditional terms: that blend of knowledge and understanding within one’s being manifested in personal integrity, conscience, and effective behaviour.” He concludes that one of the key components of the concept of ‘intelligence’ expressed by the term ‘aql was “ethical-spiritual”. 

In subsequent contributions to this series on our interactive forum, I would like to explore further the nature of higher human faculties and suggest ways in which they can be awakened and nurtured in an authentically Islamic educational process. It is through this revival that Muslims can not only transform education in the Muslim world but, through engaging with mainstream educators in other traditions, can also make a real contribution to the revival of the best educational practice in the wider world, and for all mankind.

© Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
First Published in Islamica, Issue 15, 2006


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