‘Different schools of Islamic knowledge complement each other, one should not stop at one’

Expert of the Centre for Islamic World Studies — about the programme of “integration of knowledge” in Muslim-European education

The Bulgarian Islamic Academy has recently awarded diplomas to masters. Over five years, the BIA has graduated more than 60 theologians, teachers and imams who serve the Muslim Ummah with dignity not only in Russia, but also abroad. Karim Gaynullin, a columnist for Realnoe Vremya, expert of the Centre for Islamic World Studies, tells about how science developed, having originated first in the bosom of mosques and madrassas, and how the “integration of knowledge” in Muslim-European education took place then, in the author's column for our publication.

Islam and education

It is impossible to imagine the modern world without education. Modern educational institutions were born out of religion — monasteries and mosques, where believers sought to best understand the subtleties of religious texts. The Abrahamic religions are built around the idea of the Book, Holy Scripture, which is divine Speech. In order to understand the Sacred, believers actively invested in the construction of schools, gave their children to study sciences and created educational systems.

Over time, schools and universities built and grown out of monasteries were secularised. Approaches and paradigms not related to religion were created. At the same time, religion has not disappeared. Religious institutions existed on a par with secular institutions. Old religious institutions were secularised, but new ones were built. Religion had to learn to live alongside a de-ideologised, secular science.

The development of this process began in the West, but soon affected the whole world and all civilisations. Islamic civilisation is no exception here.

History of Islamic education

The thing is that Islamic science also developed in the bosom of mosques and madrassas, that is, religious institutions. When the Islamic ulama wrote about their sciences, even seemingly irreligious, they talked about how these sciences could help religion. Medicine can treat believers, astronomy allows you to better calculate the time of prayer, geometry allows you to make calculations for the construction of mosques and calculate the correct location towards Mecca, logic allows you to deduce the correct legal and theological conclusions.

Science was developed by the hands of theology. For example, Ibn Taymiyyah, a medieval theologian and lawyer, whom the Salafists consider their authority, wrote in one of his works:

“And also many representatives of the later generation of scientists of our (Hanbali) school in their spare time were engaged in the science of inheritance distribution, arithmetic, algebra, engineering and the like, because doing this brings joy to the soul.”

Of course, it cannot be said that all the bearers of knowledge in the Islamic world were believers. There were also atheists, skeptics, deists and heretics-freethinkers. But most often they were the product of religious institutions. There were heretical traditions that also had their own educational systems and a chain of knowledge transmission, but sooner or later the Sunni or Shiite orthodoxy won, which sought to form its own educational paradigm.

On the other hand, educational institutions often appeared in response to a request to refute enemy religious propaganda. An example of this is the system of madrasahs “Nizamiya”, built by the Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk in response to the spread of his ideology by the preachers (da'i) Shiite Ismailis. By the way, one of the surviving “nizamiyas” of the XI century is still located in the Dagestan village of Tsakhur, the oldest building of an educational institution in Russia.

Jadid and Wahhabi movements

By the end of the 19th — beginning of the 20th century, the Islamic world fell into colonial dependence on Western powers. Seeing this situation and observing the technical superiority of the Europeans who came to the lands of Islam, Muslims wondered about the reasons for their own failures. One of the possible answers was an incorrect, ossified approach to education, which was a conservative programme of memorising traditional (turas) texts on religious and instrumental sciences. Thus, the “Tajdid” or “Jadid” movement was formed, striving to update the established approaches.

“Tajdid” could be expressed not only in a modernist approach to sacred texts. It often represented a form of fundamentalism, that is, the idea that in order to return to the moral and spiritual origins of the first Muslim community, it is necessary to directly address and reinterpret the sacred texts — the Koran and the Sunnah, bypassing tradition. The degree of this fundamentalism could be expressed in different ways: reform within the traditional school (madhhab), complete rejection of madhhabs, complete denial of certain sacred texts, etc.

Thus, one of the manifestations of this approach was the movement of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, which was called Wahhabism or the Nejdian call (after the name of the locality from where this movement began). The Wahhabis began to fight against traditional institutions: Sufi tariqas, rationalist schools of belief and traditional schools of Islamic law. Later, the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia also began to build their own educational institutions, taking the European system as a basis, and began to train specialists to spread their new tradition around the world.

Another peculiar reaction to the introduction of European education in India was the creation of Dar al-Ulums — their own educational system based on the Dars-i Nizami programme (the same one that was used in the Seljuk Nizamis). The most famous example is the legendary Darul Uloom Deoband, located near Delhi. This educational institution has grown a huge number of legendary scientists in the Hanafi tradition for its existence of several hundred years. Today, dar al-ulums already exist far beyond the Indian Subcontinent: including in India, Canada, England and South Africa (there are large Indian diasporas in these countries).

This is how one of the greatest muftis of our time, Muhammad Taqi Usmani, compared the European system and the dar al-ulum system:

“Baghdad is a city that has been at the centre of the Islamic world for centuries. The sight of this city alone recalls the magnificent days of the Abbasid Caliphate. When I arrived in Baghdad, I asked if there were madrassas in which Islamic knowledge was transmitted in accordance with the traditions of righteous predecessors. I was told that all such madrasas were transformed into schools and universities. Now knowledge of religion can be obtained only in the departments of universities, where Islam is taught as a simple theory, similar to ancient philosophy. Islam is not noticeable in this place either in the lives of students or their teachers. Looking at their appearance, you forget that they are religious teachers. Someone might ask, “Are they Muslims at all?"

We need different schools of Islamic knowledge

The third trend was the system of “knowledge integration”, that is, an attempt to combine the traditional Islamic education system and modern humanitarian and social approaches in one institution. Along with religious knowledge, a person receives general ideas about sociology, the history of religion, psychology, anthropology and other sciences. These types include the faculties of Ilahiyat in Turkey, as well as Ibn Haldun University, a project lobbied by Erdogan himself; Zaytuna College in Berkeley, the US, a project of the American Islamic scholar and preacher of Greek origin Hamza Yusuf; International Institute of Islamic Thought in the USA, International Islamic University in Malaysia; in fact such institutions are present in almost all Islamic countries. The popularisers of this method include Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ismail Raji al-Faruqi, Taha Jabir al-Alwani, Fazlur Rahman Malik, Muhammad Naquib al-Attas and many others.

However, I agree with the conclusion of one of my teachers: simplified and integrated programmes did not allow the emergence of professional theologians, sufficiently rooted in tradition. To really delve into religious sciences, it takes many years of hard work. Therefore, the existence of strict institutions that are engaged in long and hard work according to the classical programme is necessary. Just as it is necessary to have intellectuals familiar, albeit not so deeply, with other approaches and secular practices. Different schools of Islamic knowledge complement each other, and nations, the Ummah should not stop at one, taking different paths to one Knowledge.

Karim Gaynullin

The author's opinion may not coincide with the position of the editorial board of Realnoe Vremya.