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Redefining Islamic Education Towards an Ummatic Identity


The majority of “Islamic education,” as practiced today, is fundamentally based on a secular perspective of education. Islamic education is often reduced to the narrow understanding of Sharia, excluding sciences, social sciences, and other specializations, leaving their content and the perspectives through which they are taught under secular control. Consequently, Muslim students graduate facing a dichotomy: become an Islamic scholar with a limited focus on Sharia, mainly on fiqh and aqeeda, or become a professional or scientist, distancing themselves from the Shariah they studied, which appears irrelevant to their fields.

However, Islam is intended to shape the Muslim perspectives on all aspects of life, including science, social science, and all other fields. A Muslim architect should inherently consider urban design from an Islamic perspective, ensuring environmental preservation, privacy protection, and community enhancement. A Muslim political scientist should not fall into the “might is right” fallacy but should develop a worldview that fosters equality, cooperation, and freedom of belief, rooted in the fundamental principles of Islam. With such a comprehensive understanding of Islamic education, the mindset of a Muslim graduate would bridge the gap between Sharia and secular specializations; Sharia would become the foundation from which they comprehend the world, develop new theories in different fields and strive to improve it. The Ummah would then be more than a source of sympathy and belonging; it would be an integral part of the perspective and daily work of every Muslim economist, doctor, and community member.

Dr. Abdullah Sahin is a prominent figure in the field of Islamic education, serving as a reader at the University of Warwick. His academic journey is rooted in Islamic Studies, Theology, Educational Studies, and Social Sciences. Dr. Sahin has dedicated his career to exploring religious identity formation among British Muslim youth. He is recognized for his efforts to develop the first recognized Masters’ level degree program on Islamic education within the UK higher education system. His significant contributions include the book “New Directions in Islamic Education: Pedagogy and Identity Formation,” and he has been actively involved in research and teaching at various prestigious institutions.

The discussion and subsequent Q&A session was moderated by Dr. Usaama Al-Azami.

Date: Saturday June 29th 2024


Main presentation (Dr. Abdullah Shahin)

Islamic education today follows secular educational frameworks, focusing narrowly on Sharia while neglecting fields like sciences and social sciences, which are left to secular perspectives. This creates a dichotomy for Muslim students, between Sharia with curtailed scope or secular professionalization where Sharia seems irrelevant.

Islam is to guide all aspects of life. Architects should consider urban design from an Islamic perspective (environmentalism, privacy, community) and political scientists, rather than reproducing “might is right” fallacies, should emphasize equality, cooperation, and freedom. A comprehensive Islamic education would bridge the gap between Sharia and secular specializations.

Sharia should serve as the theoretical foundation for various fields, transforming the Ummah from a vague sense of belonging to an integral concern in the daily work of Muslim professionals. Redefining Islamic education towards an Ummatic identity involves i) rethinking the purpose of Islamic education, ii) discerning its meaning within inherited traditions, iii) redefining it with Ummatic self-awareness, and iv) considering its real-world social, political, and civic goals.

Encountering a lack of empirical research on Islamic education in the modern world, I researched British Muslim youth identity-formation between secular and community-based Islamic forms of education. His findings highlight how, for Islamic educational spaces to become catalysts for positive transformation, Islamic educational theory and practice must be rethought.

The influence of Western secular liberal values on Islamic education and the persistence of coloniality have led to a secular-religious dichotomy, failed educational reforms resulting in neoliberal hegemony, and failed experiments in religious revival resulting in a narrow definition of Islamic education as instruction.

My theoretical model assesses educational success through its impact on identity-formation, reflected in an exploratory identity, based on critical reflection and exploration, enabling learner agency, and a foreclosed identity, based on unreflective commitment and emulation, hampering learner agency. Current infrastructure reproduces foreclosed Muslim mindsets and leadership models.

I argue for a holistic approach to Islamic education, rooted in the Qur’anic concept of tarbiya, emphasizing growth, reform, and leadership. This concept aims to facilitate a critical process of change through compassionate transformation. Education should be learner-led, holistic, and continuous, helping individuals achieve a good life and recognize God’s oneness.

Tarbiya relates to Ummatic awareness through its inherent sociopolitical dimensions, creating a just society as the basis for human dignity, happiness, and flourishing. It challenges inequalities and promotes ethical responsibility towards oneself, society, and God. Redefining Islamic education towards an Ummatic identity involves reconnecting with this Tarbiya model, challenging neoliberal epistemic assumptions, engaging critically with traditional taqlīd pedagogies, and embedding these practices into a justice-focused, inclusive, integrative, and transformative praxis for Ummatic identity formation.


Dr. Usaama al-Azami’s initial intervention
  • “Islamic education” and “Islamic studies” are modern constructs shaped by secular, positivist assumptions and prejudices regarding objectivity, subjectivity, the classification of knowledge, and what knowledge is considered valuable. This makes it challenging to integrate Islamic education within existing systems.

  • Medieval education differed significantly from modern bureaucratic, technological, state-led education, which aims to shape citizens for purposes of governmentality. Unlike elite Muslim scholars of the past, contemporary education must address multiple levels and broader audiences. The Ummatic question is how to use modern resources to reinvent Islamic traditions, especially where precedents are limited.

Dr. Abdullah Sahin’s response
  • Historically, knowledge has legitimized power, with early Muslim scholars often resisting political patronage. Seljuk madrasas were early examples of political control over education. Ottoman annexation of independent scholarship diminished its intermediary role between state and public. Today’s ‘ulamā’ are frequently influenced by political interests, in contrast with more independent historical counterparts.

  • The Islamic civic imaginary emerged from scholars maintaining their distance from political power, unlike the imperial imaginary. The contemporary challenge is understanding how early ‘ulamā’ maintained independence and applying that knowledge to today’s contexts.

Q&A Main Talking Points

  • Curriculum development: Curricula reflecting an Islamic vision of education, integrating and critically engaging with secular knowledge, is essential. What counts as a scholar depends on how we produce scholars—a narrow focus results in a narrow conception of scholarship. “Islamization of knowledge” lacked integration of educational scholars and Sharia experts, limiting success.

  • Holistic education: Islamic education encompasses all knowledge genres, including “secular” sciences. The goal is not to create “Islamic” versions of secular subjects but to frame them within Islamic epistemological assumptions. Education should foster scientific and critical thinking, aligning with Qur’anic principles of challenging assumptions and arriving at certain knowledge (yaqīn).

  • Balancing instruction and leadership models: Despite fifty years of Islamic schooling, Muslim teacher training programs and dynamic curricula are still lacking. Hybrid colleges might offer a solution but often lack a transformative vision of education. Without investment in educational expertise, we cannot read our tradition, nor can we guide institutions, so we caricature the old while not catching up to modernity.

  • Diversity: The Qur’an offers a clear way of dealing with diversity, reflected prophetically in the charter of Medina. The capacity of the Qur’an’s integrative model for education to deal with diversity is exemplified in prophetic leadership and reflected in examples from Muslim history, giving, for example, Maimonides (Ibn Maymūn) the confidence as a Jewish scholar to redefine his faith.

  • Prioritizing education: Political and military successes of the Ummah–redefined by nation-state logics–are short lived in the absence of competent, dynamic educational cultural infrastructure. Iran and Turkey, despite engendering some Islamic confidence, lack sufficient investment in educational infrastructure, rendering gains temporary. Prioritizing goals does not entail aloofness from political awareness, which is at the heart of critical education in Islam, without which it would be mere training, transmission of knowledge, and indoctrination.

  • Teaching Western concepts: Young Muslims need to be able to engage critically with concepts like secularism and citizenship within an Islamic framework. They should be equipped to understand and contextualize these concepts, avoiding both reactionary dismissal and passive acceptance.

  • Balancing pedagogic vision and administration: Effective educational leadership requires combining administrative skills with a dynamic Islamic education ethos. Investing in teacher development and creating supportive environments is essential for improving educational outcomes.

  • Is critical knowledge to be sought at Western universities? The infrastructure of Western universities allows them to excel in teaching basic scholarship techniques required to produce narrow subject experts, but often lack the integrative approach of historic Islamic education. Islamic education must integrate critical and devotional attitudes, fostering holistic and respectful engagement with knowledge.

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