Debating Religious Education: History, Models, and Reform

Published: August 18, 2015

Al Mesbar’s 103th monthly book, published in July 2015, addresses one of the most vital issues in Arab and Muslim societies over the past few decades: religious education. Debating Religious Education: History, Models, and Reform tackles the differing methods of reforms in religious teaching adopted in various Arab countries, Turkey, and Iran on three different levels: schools, universities, and traditional religious institutions (notably the venerated Islamic seminaries of Al-Azhar, Najaf, and Qom).

The phenomenon can be better understood in light of the growing gap between traditional religious education, in Muslim countries on the one hand and new forms of “religious studies” and other associated dsciplines, in particular those emanating from Europe.

European models of study are often disregarded in religious education in the Arab and Muslim world, which often rely of traditional methods. The deep, hard reforms Europe undertook in its religious education were essential in introducing Islam to students in a comparative framework on the continent. The reform detailed in a report by French philosopher Regis Dupris at request of the French ministry of education.

With sectarianism on the rise in the Arab world and the associated spread of religious violence, what role does religious education reform play in drying out the wells of extremism? Will such reforms strengthen the culture of coexistence by eliminating incendiary language against followers of other religions and sects? How did educational authorities receive recommendations suggested by intellectuals regarding the urgency purifying Islamic education curriculum from ideas that encourage violence, and replacing them with ideals grounded in egalitarianism and human rights? Will reforming and renewing religious education help stimulate a much needed cultural and social revival?

Religion is a core social component which forms the basic reference point for individual and communities in Arab Muslim societies. Religious teaching has been employed politically and ideologically by Islamist movements and some clerics, who in turn have sought to alter the role of religious discourse in education to suit their objectives.

Religious violence has been metastasizing across the Middle East for decades, but the dangerous transformations imposed by religious ideologies in recent years in particular, the vast lands now controlled by extremist groups, and the viral spread of their ideas among groups of young people from various social circles, all have made it necessary to initiate a dialogue regarding the importance of religious education reforms in our schools and universities.

Religious education reforms in the region may be said to have begun in the early 19th century with the advent of colonialism. Projects of modernity and reform appeared with the objective of transferring Western civilization to an Arab learning base. Examples of such efforts are Muhammed Ali Pacha (1796-1849) in Egypt, Mahmood II (1785-1939) in the Ottoman Empire, and Albay Ahmed II (1862-1942) in Tunisia.

The history of reforms in religious education in the Arab and Muslim world include several projects aiming to develop the methodologies and curricula. Jamaluldin Al-Afghani (1838-1897) was a member of the Knowledge Council in Astana. Khairuldin Pacha (1820-1890), Rifa’a Rif’e Al-Tahtawi (1801-1873), Ali Pacha Mubarak (1823-1893) whom historians call “the father of education” for his role in the education renaissance in Egypt, and Muhammed Abdo (1849-1905) are some of the pioneers of religious education reform in the Muslim world.

Religious reform begins with the premise that “Islamic Education” curricula in schools which contain internal contradictions with a deleterious effect on the upbringing of future citizens. The educational and learning institute is seen to be of central importance for its role in shaping future generations.

Modern education, including religious studies, can play a major role in fostering values of social and national solidarity and tolerance, justice, freedom, and ethnic and religious pluralism. Education based on traditional methods is prawn to inculcate negative values such as isolationism, hatred, intolerance, and rejection of the “other”. These attributes, when combined, may lead to all sorts of violence.

Political Islamists have long understood the importance of educational institutions and the possibility of exploiting them to support the Islamist political agenda. Ministries of education have been infiltrated in several Arab states by Islamists and their sympathizers, from administrations to teaching staff, which has left a negative influence on students in religious studies or in education in general.

Reforms in religious education must not be exclusive to the religious schools and institutions in the Arab and Muslim world; it should extend to general education curricula concerning Islam in all grades of all schools. Revising material that breeds radicalism should be a priority in efforts to foster openness and reform. Students must be provided, according to age and level, with an exposure to the civilizational and cultural richness of Islam, while at the same time eschewing the self-righteousness and exclusionism which often leads to self-isolation and rejection of the other. This means that the teaching of religion in the region must undergo a fundamental transformation in its methods. Doing so will assist in creating a new consciousness that keeps pace with new advancements and builds the foundations for future generations to carry on a true social, cultural, and civilized renaissance.

Some of the obstacles facing such reforms include how religious is being taught in schools: Are the perspectives based on faith, knowledge, or a combination of both? Is Islam being taught to children on basis of supremacism, or integration? Is intimidation used in religious education? Does teaching prejudice one historical period in the evolution of the faith against all others, or is there balance between different eras? How are women represented in Islamic teaching? How is “the other” presented? Why, anyhow, does general education policy require the “Islamization” of other curricula? What relation is there, if any, between the rise in radicalism and the decline in teaching philosophy? These questions and others form the framework for this month’s book.

The book does not oppose religious teaching as a core element in educational and cultural systems, but it does attempt to examine the problems within these systems, and calls for new curricula that permit openness to today’s diverse cultures, the “other,” and those universal principles that bind us all together.

The Center would like extend its gratitude to all the experts and scholars involved in this book, and in particular Dr. Mohammed Haddad who took on the task of supervision, and Dr. Rita Faraj, who coordinated its component parts.

Editor in Chief

July 2015