Providing Much-Needed Education For Africa: An Islamic Approach – Analysis


Knowledge And Education In Islam

The Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization –ISESCO- has spared no effort, since its inception in 1982, in Morocco, by a decision of the Third Islamic Conference, held in Makkah Al-Mukarramah and Taef in Saudi Arabia in January 1981, to improve education in the Muslim world in its content, approach, philosophy and output and to set up strategies for generalizing access to school and offering the least privileged members of society the possibility to get the necessary education, in the best possible conditions.i

It must be said at the outset, that the Islamic Organization has put emphasis on quality of education in its action and activities in the Muslim world because education has always been, since the emergence of Muslim civilization, one of its cornerstones, if not the most important one.ii

The importance of knowledge acquisition and education in the Muslim religion is stressed in various verses of the Koran by Allah. For Him those who hold knowledge occupy an important rank within the Muslim society and in His eyes they are far superior in rank and importance than those who do not, because knowledge and education call for respect and awe:

O ye who believe! When you are told to make room in the assemblies, (spread out and) make room: (ample) room, Allah will provide for you. And when you are told to rise up, rise up: Allah will rise up to (suitable) ranks (and degrees), those of you who believe and who have been granted knowledge. And all is well-acquainted with all ye do.

(Sura 58 – 11) iii

And this is not all, because Allah holds the people of knowledge in much respect and in high esteem and for Him those who show education cannot be placed on the same level as those who do not:

Is one who worships devoutly during the hours of the night prostrating himself or standing (in adoration), who takes heed of the Hereafter, and who places his hope in the mercy of his Lord, (like one how does not)? Say: “Are those equal, those who know and those who do not know? It is those who are endued with understanding that receive admonition.

(Sura 29 – 9) iv

For the ulema (the Guardians of Knowledge), who have a true knowledge of the might of the Creator, Allah the Almighty, fear His might and power and show this fear in their adoration of Him.

Because of the respect that Allah has expressed for the ulema (the Guardians of Knowledge), they were later to play a central role in the development of Islam and its propagation throughout. They acted as the keepers of the Islamic orthodoxy and the instigators of reforms and political dialogue. They have always been and still are respected by political leaders for their knowledge and wisdom. They were often called upon, in dire times, to make political decisions and lead the nation of Islam through crisis and doubt to the safe shore of welfare and true faith. Because of their ability to rally the masses and to find remedies to social, economic and political crises, they were known as:

أهل الحل والعقد

“Those who untie knots and make them”, i.e. those who can decide the future of the people and the nation.

From the very beginning, Islam emphasized in no doubtful terms the importance of knowledge, education and literacy and ranked them as important features of الإيمان al-imane (faith). A true faithful is a person who can read and write, a person who can contribute to the development of his country and its advancement with his knowledge and education, a person who can encourage knowledge and education within society for its betterment.

Indeed, Islam was associated with knowledge and education and learning from the very beginning. The Koran was revealed to the would-be messenger Muhammad, in the grotto of Hira, where he used to retreat for meditation and introspection, by the Angel Gabriel. During their first encounter the Angel Gabriel ordered Muhammad, in no doubtful terms, to “read”, the latter trembling with fear replied “I cannot read” and the Angel repeated the order twice and thrice before the Prophet started reading:

1. Proclaim (or Read) in the name of Thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created,
2. Created man, out of a mere clot of congealed blood:
3. Proclaim and Thy Lord is Most Bountiful,
4. He Who taught (the use of) the Pen,
5. Taught man that which he knew not.
6. Nay, but man doth transgress all bounds,
7. In that he looketh upon himself as self-sufficient.
8. Verify, to thy Lord is the return (of all).

(Sura 96 – 1 – 8) v

Later when the Prophet Muhammad was established in his prophet hood, he emphasized the importance of knowledge and education in the life of believers and encouraged his followers to seek them actively.

As a result of these religious injunctions, education became an important duty of the pious Muslim and this interest led gradually to the inception of Islamic education and its development in various part of the Muslim world. But Islamic education was not an education dealing exclusively with religion, it dealt, also, with all aspects of knowledge both spiritual and temporal, with an emphasis on quality.

Thus, under Islamic education, students would receive instruction in the following areas:

  1. Religious education: Koran – hadith – sira – Fiqh
    Islamic thinking – Principles of Islam;
  2. Temporal / secular education: philosophy – astronomy – linguistics – literature – science;
  3. Practical / vocational education: apprenticeship in various professional guilds: carpentry, ironwork, goldsmith’s trade, leatherwork, copper work, etc…

The practical aim of this type of education was to train students to get religious instruction of quality, but also other forms of knowledge, and most importantly training in some sort of skill with a view of getting a job for a decent living.

In the early days of Islamic education, the tendency was towards encyclopaedic knowledge, whereby students learned religious topics in addition to subjects dealing with worldly matters, and as a result they became encyclopaedic learners or savants such as Avicenna, Averroes, Ibn Nafis, etc… and many others known in Arabic language and history as ulema mawsu’iyyun (encyclopaedic scholars), who devoted their entire life to mastering various topics in spiritual and worldly education. vi

Islamic Education has always occupied a prominent place in the educational system of the Muslim countries, even if today it has been supplanted in many areas by secular education. It is traditionally offered through three levels, with emphasis on quality:

  1. Primary education: kuttab
  2. Secondary education: medersa
  3. Higher education: jâmi’a or ma’had vii

Islamic education is not only concerned with teaching religious topics, it also deals with teaching concepts of tolerance tasâmuh and concepts of peaceful coexistence ta’âyush silmi, as well as concepts of dialogue hiwâr, with people from other religions known in Islam as ahl al-kitab.

In this respect, Aisha Lemu, responsible of Islamic education curriculum in Nigeria viii, says on this particular subject:

We … gave much more time to issues such as the rights of women in Islam, the rights and duties of the husband and wife, and the moral teachings of Islam. We gave less to historical details of battles and dynasties and more to the civilizational values of Islam, as well as its impact on West Africa…

She goes on saying: ix

With regard to the relationship between, Islam and other religions, or between Muslims and non-Muslims, these are not treated as a separate topic. However, under Tawhid (literally the Oneness of God) the matter of unity, trinity or multiplicity of Gods / gods is taught. The rights of “the People of the book” to retain and practice their religions within an Islamic polity is also covered.

Though Turkey is constitutionally a secular state, yet it has made room in its educational system for Islamic education. According to Recep Laymackan: x

The subject does not aim at conversion, nurturing the pupils in a particular religion or denomination, or making the pupil more religious. Rather its intention is to provide general knowledge, mainly of Islam and other world religions and ethical issues. It also aims at promoting religious understanding and tolerance. This means that the subject also includes citizenship issues.

Quality Education, A Cornerstone Of Muslim Civilization

Since the emergence of Muslim civilization, education has always been one of the primal targets of social action and one of the main objectives of cultural solidarity of the Muslim ummah. This is so because education is sanctified both in the Holy Koran, in the doings of the Prophet Muhammad sira and in his sayings hadith in which he stated to his congregation:

I have been sent as a teacher

And as such Muslim societies became societies with high interest in acquiring knowledge and in passing it to the next generations. And the holders of knowledge were not only respected but to a certain extent venerated and called ustad, and the term “ustad” is considered to be one of the highest attributes you can add to the name of a given person because it means “teacher”, and teaching in Islam is one of noblest professions a faithful can aspire to occupy in his lifetime.

Not only the Prophet Muhammad was sent as a teacher to humanity but his mission was, also, providing quality education to everyone:

I was dispatched to humanity to teach noble values

The Muslim societies thus became societies for teaching and learning and preserved this particular specificity throughout history.

During the period of the Scramble for Africa xi, while fighting colonialism and in resisting its attempts to obliterate the Islamic identity of society, African Muslim people were particularly keen to preserve their educational pattern represented by the Arab-Islamic schools, which were widespread particularly in the sub-Saharan African countries. Likewise, considerable efforts were made to preserve the cultural heritage of these people, either as written in Arabic or as written in their national languages that were, then, transcribed in Koranic script.xii

Unfortunately, however, the very specificities which have for a long time, characterized education in the Islamic countries, have over the last few years been put on the back burner, either intentionally or not. This is particularly obvious in the failure to link education with training and qualification for employment or with opportunities in Arab-Islamic schools, a state of affairs that discourages parents from sending their children to these schools.

ISESCO, in its drive to consolidate this type of education in Africa, has in the last decade backed up the efforts of countries to safeguard the specificities of Islamic education by helping improve performance in Arab-Islamic schools and by consolidating the link between this type of education and the needs of the employment market.

ISESCO is, however, fully conscious of the problems that it faces in its efforts to cause rapid reconstruction and development of education in Africa. The quality of education has been seriously eroded at all levels due to depredations of war, civil strife and the consequent economic decline during the last two decades. Schools are ill-equipped, instructional materials are in short supply, teachers are poorly remunerated and demoralized, and many of them are unqualified. Literacy is still at an unacceptable low level. On the other hand, most of the curricula in educational institutions are not designed to equip the youth with productive skills.

Worse still, there are all kinds of imbalances in the distribution of educational facilities between urban and rural areas, between different regions and ethnic or nationality groups, between boys and girls and between the rich and the poor. For instance, it is mostly those who are socially better off who derive the benefits of free education, while many poor parents cannot provide even primary education to their children because of its ever rising prohibitive cost.

Literacy Strategies

History will always remember the chapter in the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, where he ordered the release of prisoners of war on the condition that each of them teaches ten young Muslims how to write and read. Such wisdom was the fastest organized effort in the history of Islam to erase xiiiilliteracy.

Umaru Musa Yar’adua University (UMYU) Katsina, Nigeria
Umaru Musa Yar’adua University (UMYU) Katsina, Nigeria

Throughout history and to date, the level of literacy has been closely linked to the level of social development. Lately, the level of literacy in a country has become one of the main criteria used to gauge the standard of human development among countries.

Unfortunately, the rate of illiteracy in some African countries ranks among the highest in the world. This stands as a great obstacle to the march of global progress in those countries. While developed countries debate the need for erasing computer and technological illiteracy, many Islamic countries still battle with alphabetical literacy.

Despite of the efforts made by most African Islamic countries, some of them have failed to make much progress in ridding their populations from the plague of illiteracy. This failure is due to the absence of strategies, the inadequacy of planning, the lack of qualified human resources, meagre finances, the focus of interest on formal education with adult education and literacy at a disadvantage, and many other factors. The same scenario applies to the education of groups with special needs to which African Muslim countries grant very little importance, and sometimes completely omit to provide suitable educational alternatives to these groups.

Catching up with the rest of the world requires not only that illiteracy be totally eradicated but that substantial progress be made in science and technology and that equal rights to education be granted to all social groups whatever their means and capacities may be.

The Islamic Organization has, since its inception, exerted a lot of effort in the promotion of literacy through its consecutive plans and the elaboration of the Special Islamic Programme for Illiteracy and Basic Education, a program that was designed in such a way as to be financed outside of the budget. But, through the said program was approved by the General Conference of ISESCO in its extraordinary session (Jomtien 1990), financing remained a stumbling block to its implementation.

Setting out a whole field of action devoted to illiteracy in the Action Plan of ISESCO for 2001-2003, has come as a response to the recommendations of the General Conference and the Executive Council in their respective meetings, to the effect that illiteracy programs be given top priority in view of the high rate of illiteracy in many Islamic countries. This need was made all the more acute by the results of the study carried out by the Organization within the framework of its triennial plan 1998-2000, on the Status of Illiteracy in Muslim Countries which revealed the needs of Member States in financial and technical assistance if they were to contain this plague.

In this respect, the Islamic Organization has assisted African countries in the planning and implementation of comprehensive literacy programs and by encouraging the use of national languages transcribed in koranic script in these programs, as this has proved quite an impetus for people joining literacy programs.

On TOSTAN’s xiv non-formal basic education program in national languages in Senegal, Cynthia Guttman echoes the difficulties faced: xv

“The government has recognized that literacy programmes work best when conducted in national languages, but fight against illiteracy has been plagued by a severe lack of resources and poor coordination. No basic education programme in national languages existed in Senegal in 1987. At central government level, responsibility for literacy has been often tossed around between ministries. The absence of a well thought out national strategy, poor training of literacy practitioners and too few educational materials have meant ad hoc interventions with little supervision or follow-up. Poor planning is also due to lack of precise literacy figures.”

But, however, she reports that the situation is improving gradually in this country as the result of a determined political will to face up to the challenges of illiteracy: xvi

“But things are changing. A ministry for literacy and the promotion of national languages was created in 1991. One of the results of the ministry’s policy is to decentralize operations and develop partnerships with non-governmental and community organizations. To this end, a national committee was set up to enhance concentration, promote action-research, further the exchange of experiences to build capacity, and improve data collection.

Viable Education

Muslim primary school in South Africa
Muslim primary school in South Africa

The last two decades have witnessed successive changes in various fields of human activity. In the educational field, many innovations were adopted including two trends towards ensuring education for all and dispensing a viable education. The first trend benefited from a huge campaign of media exposure and an intensification of educational activity, as a result of the Jomtien Conference, where ideas such as the global view of education and providing basic education were largely debated. Other catalysts were the recent World Declaration on Education for All,xvii and the implementation and follow up mechanisms at the regional and international scales. Many Islamic countries have made great efforts and still preserve in their praiseworthy endeavours in this field.

The second trend, however, did not benefit from the same interest and, in fact, sometimes completely failed to attract attention in spite of its paramount importance in bringing about a more efficient performance of educational institutions and consequently social development. Starting from the principal that quantity is not the only criteria of good education, but that the need is strong for as good a quality of education as possible. A weak educational output is a stumbling block for human development. It dampens the urge to seek further knowledge, reduces outlets and is a waste of resources.

Useful education can be provided by enhancing the quality of schooling. Playing a role in this are factors such as: lengthening the period of education, providing incentives to teachers and students, planning for good results, learning to achieve perfection, good planning of courses, providing an orderly learning environment, ensuring variety of topics taught, cooperative education, computer and technology- assisted education, and involving the parents in the educational process.

Action in this area consisted of calling upon African countries, to bestow as much interest on the quality of instruction as on the generalization of education and literacy, and to take stock of the blatant inadequacy of the internal and external performance of education in many African countries.

Action in this field, also, enabled African Member States to improve the standard of their educational performances at pre-university levels and institutions, to ensure a useful and viable education and complement the increase in education activity quantity wise with quality and good academic achievement.

Achieving Development Through Quality Education

During the twentieth century, the world has witnessed tremendous changes at various levels. These changes have had diverse impact on human being, on society and on environment at the same time. Some of these transmutations were positive such as the incredible leap in scientific and technological fields like medicine, space conquest, communication and computer science. But others have generated disadvantages and threats that never crossed the mind of human being. By discovering ways to provide a better and longer life, medicine has also prepared a suitable environment for population growth along which cropped up many other problems that affected the environment and created the need to protect nature from man. Medical advances in genetic engineering and cloning have also become a danger threatening all humanity because of absence of ethical values.

ISESCO’s headquarters in Rabat, Morocco
ISESCO’s headquarters in Rabat, Morocco

On the other hand, technological leaps and the changes they entailed in workplaces have generated a huge gap between the education dispensed and the requirements of the job market, which led to a loss of credibility in education, especially with the increase of the number of unemployed graduates. This, has resulted from the slow development of educational institutions compared to the fast pace of social changes and the accompanying change in requirements.

In the light of these successive changes, and in an attempt to catch up with progress, the Islamic Organization has opted for continuing to use scientific development through education to achieve continuous and global development based on the teachings of Islam and respectful of the Islamic characteristics and Islamic civilization. It has also set up programmes to link education to development under its various forms and made efforts to improve environment, population, and health education at the theoretical and practical levels as an integral part of general education and as guidance for the person in his dealing with the dangers of unbridled and liberal development, where morals have no say and greed for money is the master.

Keeping Abreast With Changes

Improving educational and teaching systems is a major factor in the development of countries and societies and would enable these to achieve success in today’s world, to prepare generations for the future by arming them with enough resources to adjust to the rapid changes and keep alert for unexpected shifts. Institutions should aim for a better quality of education, reduce occasions of educational loss and waste and constantly make the necessary improvements required in the educational process in order to keep up with regional and international changes in various fields.

But though a number of countries are aware of this need, many of them still follow traditional systems in education and fail to give educational research and planning the importance they need. In consequence, the Islamic Organization has endeavoured to find more than one means to raise education to a viable level, to ensure a good effectiveness of the educational system in Islamic countries and to prepare the Muslims for the demands and the realities of modern times. This requires that the educational process moves from the technique of mere learning by heart to that of understanding, creativity and application.

Technological education has benefited from a generous share of the Organization’s interest, the aim being an alignment of education with the realities of daily modern life and encouraging students to make constant use of it. Another goal would be the training of persons to use increasingly sophisticated technology.

Another factor that is tantamount to the achievement of educational development is the issue of finance. Useful education, as aspired to by most countries, requires huge investments that governments are in no position to bear alone. In the twenty first century, the wealthiest countries in the world will have difficulty covering all the expenses of education from their budgets. Deep reflection is needed to come up with possible formulas for the financing of education, formulas such as cooperative schooling, encouraging private education institutions and approving investments that would generate funds for schooling.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu

End Notes:

Preamble of ISESCO’s Charter :

“The Governments of the Member States, Believing that Islam, a religion of peace and tolerance, represents a way of life and a spiritual, human, moral, cultural and civilizational force which made, and is still making, constructive contribution towards the shaping of the Islamic World and the development of human civilization; Responding to the expectations of the Member States and the hopes of the Islamic Ummah in achieving cooperation, solidarity, progress and prosperity within the framework of joint Islamic action; In anticipation of the challenges faced by the Member States in the educational, scientific, cultural and communication fields, and being aware of the importance of such fields in achieving development, progress and prosperity, without neglecting the Ummah’s glorious heritage; Being aware of the close bonds which unite the peoples of the Islamic World through the unity of civilization and the shared spiritual, moral and cultural values, and seeking to encourage civilizational interaction and promote these shared civilizational, cultural and intellectual bonds; Activating the principles of solidarity, mutual assistance and equality to reinforce cooperation among the Member States and thereby promote education, science, culture and communication through all appropriate means;”
iii. Cf. The Holy Koran, version 6.31, Koran with Exegis, Translation and Memorization, edited by Sakhr ltd. Jordan.
iv. Ibid.
v. Ibid.
vi. Cf. Chtatou, M. “ Religious education in the Muslim World- ISESCO’s efforts for peace and inter-faith dialogue’’ pp 46-50, in Teaching for Tolerance and Freedom of Religion or Belief, eds. Lena Larsen and Ingvild T. Pelsner, 2002, Oslo University, Oslo: Norway, p 46.
vii. Ibid, p. 47.
viii. Cf. Lemu, A. “ Religious Education in Nigeria – A Case Study’’ pp 69-75 in Teaching for Tolerance and Freedom of Religion or Belief, eds. Lena Larsen and Ingvild T. Pelsner, 2002, Oslo University, Oslo: Norway, p 71.
ix. Ibid, p. 72.
x. Cf. Laymackan, R., “Religious Education in Modern Turkey in the Context of Freedom of Religion or Belief’’ pp. 51-54 in Teaching for Tolerance and Freedom of Religion or Belief, eds. Lena Larsen and Ingvild T. Pelsner, 2002, Oslo University, Oslo: Norway, p 51.
xii. Chtatou, M. 1992. Using Arabic Script in the Writing of the Languages of Moslem People of Africa. Rabat, Morocco: Institute for African Studies;
xiii. Chtatou, M. 2010. “Mother Tongue in Education: the African Experience, in Globalization and Mother Tongues in Africa, ed. Yamina El Kirat El Allame. (2010), p 153-178.
xv. Cf. Guttman, C. “Breaking through: TOSTAN’S non –formal basic education programme in national languages in Senegal’’ in Making it work N° 6, 1995, Paris: UNESCO, p.10.
xvi. Ibid, p. 11.
The Jomtien Conference 1990
The Dakar Framework for Action 2000

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

One thought on “Providing Much-Needed Education For Africa: An Islamic Approach – Analysis

  • October 9, 2017 at 10:50 am

    The man who himself is not educated man who is busy having fun many wives .Man who is busy killing others who is busy killing educated can ever lead his followers to good education .
    Education of Mullas is so limited and all area dot fool the poor and uneducated


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *