It seems that the affirmative stance of Islam on scientific inquiry and method created a basic attitude of receptivity to modern/Western influences in the spheres of education, the legal profession and the judiciary. Notwithstanding the many questions that were asked as to whether Western secular methods should be accepted in Islam’s traditional center’s of learning, that resistance has gradually diminished and significant changes have been made to educational curricula and methods in Islamic schools and universities. Reforms of this kind continued to be undertaken even decades after the end of colonial rule in some Muslim countries.
Public education in Muslim countries, including scientific education, was brought by colonial powers who replaced the Islamic educational system that prevailed earlier, or else the new methods were superimposed on an under-layer of the traditional system that still remained operative. The Western approach to education basically precluded religion from the purview of science and led to inevitable conflict with it. The product of that combination was duality and bifurcation between the old and the new, a colonial legacy which persists to this day in the educational system of many Muslim countries. It has proved difficult to blend the two systems into an integrated whole, despite the fact that policy makers in Muslim countries have often tried to achieve that.
The Western scientific approach to liberal education can be seen in the 1946 Harvard Committee Report entitled General Education in a Free Society, which divides knowledge into three categories: natural sciences, humanities, and social studies. General education is expected to develop certain capabilities of the mind which are “to think effectively, to communicate thought, to make relevant judgments [and] to discriminate among values.”
Effective thinking is described as having three phases: logical, rational and imaginative. Logical thinking is applicable to practical matters such as whom to vote for and whom to befriend; it is also the ability to extract universal truths from particular cases and infer the particular from the general. It is manifested in the ability to analyze a problem and recombine its relevant elements with the help of imagination.
By rational thinking, the Report means the ability to think at a level appropriate to a problem. The Report adds that making relevant value judgment involves the ability of the student to bear a whole range of ideas upon the area of experience. “Discrimination among values” means the ability to distinguish various kinds of values, aesthetic, moral and intellectual and then to commit oneself to such values in the conduct of life.
The Report excludes metaphysical knowledge and religious studies from the sphere of knowledge, and confines the attention of educationists to a concept of man for whom belief in God or even pursuit of knowledge beyond the domain of the senses does not have any special significance. One commentator noted that by ignoring religious studies the Report failed to appreciate the effect of religion on personality and the direction that effective thinking might take as a result of the impact of religion on the whole person.
The view that Islam subordinates science to the teaching of religion finds support in Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr who wrote that by contrast to the Western world which views the science of nature to be mainly concerned with “quantitative aspects of things,” and science is closely identified with technology and its applications, Islamic science “seeks perfection and deliverance.” To understand it requires placing oneself within its perspective as a “science of nature which has a different end, and uses different means from those of modern science.” The ultimate aim of Islamic science, Nasr added, has always been to relate the corporeal world to its basic spiritual principle which seeks to unite the various orders of reality. “The arts and sciences in Islam are based on the idea of unity” and its aim is to show the inter relatedness of all that exists. In contemplating the unity of the cosmos, man may be led to the unity of the Divine principle, of which the unity of Nature is the image. Professor Nasr’s views have been met with some reservation, as one of his critics noted: “For me the true worth of science lies in helping us to understand nature ... We need science and technology not to make us more spiritual, moral and ethical...[but] to make us more productive” and enable us to subdue and manipulate nature. I also have some reservation over the statement that Islamic science has different ends and uses different means compared to modern science. For I started the basic theme of this essay with a hypothesis that the inductive method, being the principal means and tool of modern science, is equally accepted in the Islamic theory of knowledge, be it the arts, the natural sciences or medicine. Soroush is of the view that modern science explains the world as if it was not created by a god, not denying his existence, but rather finding no need to postulate it. It is thus assumed that even if there were a god, science would nonetheless be able to explain the world without relying on his existence. Soroush has thus acknowledged a degree of disharmony between religion and science but added that the tension which exists between them need not be exaggerated.
Secularism is widely regarded as one of the tools, and also a major contribution, of modern science, which stands at odds with spirituality and religion. Yet it is interesting to note that secularism has penetrated public education in the Muslim world especially during the colonial rule and ever since. Secularism is defined as the deliverance of Man “first from religious and then from metaphysical control over his reason and language.” Secularism and modernization both subscribe to a fundamental belief in rationality and scientific thought: Just as Nature is separated from the will of God, Man is ‘freed’ from the restrictive demands of religion. It would be difficult to claim that Islamic thought can accept secularism as such without some reservations. Yet certain aspects of secularism have been adopted in the Arab world and brought about considerable transformation in its institutions of learning, the judiciary and the status of religious scholars and ulama. It is also manifested elsewhere in the replacement largely of fuqaha’ by lawyers, and of religious teachers by trained teachers in modern schools, especially when the kuttab/maktab, the Qur’anic schools, were transformed into modern schools on the Western model, even though the process was gradual and uneven. One of the reservations that may be noted here is as follows: Muslims have adopted many of the premises of secularism without, however, isolating religion from public life. This may be said to be manifested in many of the formal constitutions of Muslim countries which recognize Islam either as the state religion or accord other forms of recognition to its validity and acceptance.
The changes that took place in public education and Islamic institutions of learning were on a wider scale in other parts of the Middle East compared to Egypt, where for various reasons, al-Azhar kept its control over primary education. In the Maghreb, French colonialism divided the education system into a modern sector closely modeled on the French system and another, older sector, based on the kuttab. The transformation was extended with the replacement of the madaris, which used to teach the fiqh, the Qur’an, the hadith and elements of Arabic, by universities applying modern curricula. Drastically revised curricula were later, and somewhat reluctantly, introduced by institutions like al-Azhar, and Zaytuna, perhaps less drastically in the former. But Zaytuna was transformed so much that reduced its status from a university to what is now a part of a modern university, known as the Faculty of Religious Studies. Changes in al-Azhar were not as radical as the new faculties, and their revised curricula still remained under the umbrella of the old al-Azhar principles and traditions.
Turkey under Kamal Ataturk had imported Western secular education without even attempting to reform the traditional system. Indonesia, and Malaysia, although Muslim majority countries, almost uncritically accepted secularism or else remained non-committal to the idea of a reformed Islamic educational system beyond retaining religious education as a subject in the curricula of their national schools. Both countries have in the meantime retained their traditional madrassas, some of which have been expanded, and to some extent reformed, in recent decades.
These changes led to a shift from a perception which saw public affairs, society and education through the prism of religion, to one that bore the imprint of modernity, or nahdah (awakening), that implied openness to further modernization. Changes were often accompanied by social upheavals that took place in Arab and Muslim societies far over a century that affected their education system and the judiciary more than most. The body of ulama was displaced from the leading places it had occupied in public life. The introduction of legal codes in many fields that were previously governed by the fiqh texts added to the marginalized status of the ulama. Formal constitutions introduced on the eve of colonialism in many Muslim and Arab countries were yet other instrument of secularism which articulated the ideas and foundations of the Western nation state in these countries.