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Foundations and Principles of Education in Islam by Ayt. Mesbah-Yazdi

Islamic educational system is based on a series of specific foundations, stemming from an Islamic vision about the aforementioned issues.

Each educational system is based on the idea and vision of its founders about a number of elements: the true nature and the ontological dimensions of human being, the objective(s) they consider for education, and their idea about how human beings develop and advance toward the given objective(s). In fact, these visions and understandings shape the foundations of education in every system of thought, even though they may not be consciously taken into consideration, or may not be explicitly mentioned.

Naturally, Islamic educational system is also based on a series of specific foundations, stemming from an Islamic vision about the aforementioned issues. Therefore, it is necessary for us to first and foremost pay attention to these theoretical bedrocks, and then explain educational practical principles on their basis before trying to elaborate on the Islamic educational system.

By deliberating upon the Islamic idea about the true nature of human beings, their ontological dimensions, the goal of their creation, their ultimate perfection, and the way they move towards this end, one is able to consider the following twelve points as cornerstones of an Islamic education. Of course, the ultimate goal of Islamic education is but preparing the ground for maximal perfection of human beings, and practical aims are understood in this direction.

Theoretical Foundations of Education in Islam

  1. The True Nature of Human Being: From an Islamic point of view, human being is not merely a corporeal organism, but rather possesses a celestial element that remains after the dispersion of body, and lives forever, either with perpetual beatitude or eternal misery. In fact, human being is human because of one’s soul, and body serves as a means of activity, or as a vehicle for action and motion; of course, the soundness and strength of an instrument is something that should be taken care of.
  1. The Position of Human Being in the World: Human being, from amongst the creatures of this world, is blessed with certain bounties and capacities that differentiates it from others. Subtleties that exist in human exterior and interior organs, especially in the brain and nervous system, and its unique psychological capabilities cannot be found in any other living organism. Due to these same characteristics, human being is able to manipulate natural events and to employ them in the service of its own progress and perfection. Bestowing such privileges upon human beings is a Divine veneration, as mentioned in the Quran.
  1. Human being on a crossroad (between two infinites): Powers and potentialities, which the Almighty Allah has bestowed upon humankind, are one’s genetic and innate assets for moving forward towards the final goal. Nevertheless, putting these divine resources to work depends on one’s own will, choice, decision, and selection. One can take advantage of these bounties to travel the path to the actual perfection and obtain eternal beatitude, as one can also abuse them and hence, journey toward slump and baseness so much so one becomes less worthy than animals, and buys eternal misery for oneself. Therefore, the human route can be mapped between two infinities, one ascending to infinite perfection and beatitude, and the other crashing into infinite wretchedness and anguish. So the ultimate human value and dignity is contingent upon choosing piety, and hence, not all people would possess absolute and equal value, but rather believers and committed people who act properly, have positive value, and disbelievers who commit improper deeds gain negative value, each of whom have multilevel ranking.
  1. The aim of the creation of humankind (Ultimate perfection): Humankind is created with unique qualities in order to travel the path to perfection with free will and conscious choice, to be worthy of receiving specific blessings bestowed upon one as a result of one’s discretional move, and to reach the position of proximity to God, accompanied by perpetual beatitude. And since such a journey must be done at one’s discretion, there must be an opposite alternative path culminating in permanent misery and punishment.
  1. Temporal world as a prelude to the hereafter: Considering the aim of human creation, it becomes evident that one’s life in this world is a limited and preparatory transience for self-realization, progress, and the objectification of potentialities. The stable and eternal result of this life appears in the hereafter. If people choose, in this world, the direction of perfection, they will reside in the edifice of everlasting bounty and mercy, and if they choose the opposite, they will go to the place of interminable torment and decay. According to the Quran, this world is the stage of trial, so that the righteous are differentiated from the transgressors, and in the hereafter, all will meet what they deserve.


  1. General means of movement: Human ascent towards the summits of perfection and beatitude, or one’s descent into the canyons of decay and destruction are the results of one’s actions and behavior, whether internal (such as remembering God) or external. The most one acts freely and consciously, the most effective they will become upon one’s destiny by accelerating the movement. Such behaviors notwithstanding, no ethical good or evil exists, and hence no reward or punishment is deserved.
  1. Conditions for volitional movement: Crystallizing one’s ascending or descending movement, human volitional behaviors stem from one’s instinctive and natural tendencies. Giving direction to such actions depends on knowing specific facts, believing in certain realities, and adopting special values. Moreover, human external actions are contingent upon natural and social possibilities and the availability of outward conditions too.
  1. The bare minimum in effective choice: Human primary behaviors (such as those in the age of infancy) stem from innate inclinations, information gathered through simple experiments, and the use of material conditions which are provided without one’s volition. This kind of behaviors though not totally devoid of some sort of decision and choice has no final effect on one’s eternal beatitude or misery because they lack sufficient freedom and awareness. Gradually, behaviors become more complex, and fanning the flames of desires, acquiring knowledge and insights, and bringing about exterior means and conditions are more or less included in the domain of one’s volition and choice. These conditions, therefore, pave the way for taking long and decisive steps, which comes about when a person achieves one’s necessary cognitive development (the age of puberty and duty). At this point, the minimum necessary condition for conscious choice effectual in perpetual beatitude and misery is attained, and an individual becomes subject to serious responsibilities.
  1. The relation of individual differences with responsibilities: Human individuals are not on a par regarding their God-given possessions (both physical abilities and psychological capabilities), as they vary in enjoying natural and social bounties as well as means for external activities. Such differences are the results of the cause-effect system that governs the world, and follows the wisely Divine plan. The quantity and quality of responsibilities, and the vastness or narrowness of the scope for ascension or descension differs respectively. The general law is that everyone is responsible before God who has bestowed these bounties upon him/her within the limits of one’s capacity and capability, and according to the scope of one’s available choices and alternatives. Therefore, the extent of one’s possible progress and perfection and the degree of one’s potential relapse and regress would be symmetrical and proportionate.
  1. The effect of education (the role of teacher and educator): Human beings have the opportunity to receive help from others in acquiring knowledge, learning values, and actualizing their potentialities in general, as well as correcting their mistakes and misdeeds. Thereof, the important role of teachers and educators become evident, because they are the ones who can broaden the range of one’s knowledge and reasoning by teaching worthy knowledge and providing useful information, and are able to assist their audience in choosing the right option, controlling their selfish desires, achieving moral virtues such as self-devotion and sacrifice, and in sum, to give them a hand to worship God. In this way, they grow to be precious means for applying the Divine goal in creating human beings, as well as taking long steps in the direction of their own perfection.
  1. The inevitability of social life and its requisites: People need to cooperate and coexist with their fellow human beings in order to be able to continue their living, meet their life needs, and fight various threats. Social life, on its turn, rests on the division of labor, just distribution of benefits and products, laws and rulings, and an executing system for their implementation. Without such mechanisms, social life will be crippled by anarchy, and people are deprived of resources necessary for their journey toward perfection. On the other hand, the isolation of individuals makes their life miserable, or even impossible, as it leaves society without their cooperation, and both the consequences are against the expediency and rationale of the creation of humankind. Moreover, it is basically in the context of a social life that various efforts and conflicts become possible, and ordeals and decisions in different dimensions are given a chance.
  1. Social responsibilities: Since the path an individual travels during one’s life is bilateral, and its direction depends upon the decision and choice made by the individual or community, there are always people who not only take steps against their own expediencies, toward misery and self-destruction, but also obstruct and hinder others from progress. They initiate various forms of injustices and aggressions, and if there is no effectual endeavor aiming at guiding the misled, eliminating the mischief of aggressors, and standing up for the disadvantaged and victims, before long, aggression and misdeed will dominate the world, and there will remain no opportunity for philanthropists and those who are apt to advance towards perfection. As a consequence, different sorts of social responsibilities are respectively determined for individuals, groups, and official departments of the government.

The Practical Principles of Education in Islam

Based on the aforementioned foundations, one can conclude some general points for the quality of education, we call them here, the practical principles of education and they are as follow:

  1. An accurate appraisal of the material and spiritual needs: The content of education should be arranged in a way that the instructed recognize the essentiality of the psychological and spiritual dimension of human being, and regards material necessities as means (and not ends). At the same time, one has to avoid extremism in ascetic advices which may terminate in bodily harms, or even sometimes psychological abnormalities; one should not forget observing sanity principles, physical education, and rationally calculated recreation.
  1. Provoking the sense of self-esteem and self-respect: An educator should stimulate a sense of self-esteem and self-respect due to the unique position of human being amongst creatures, and exceptional bounties the Almighty God has bestowed upon humankind whether physical and psychological, or external and social as well as the dominance He has given to people over nature. A teacher, therefore, should make students cognizant of the fact that engaging in base actions is tantamount to soiling the jewel of humanity, and following selfish desires equals the enslavement and abatement of one’s intellect and heavenly spirit. On the other hand, because bodily organs and psychic forces are trusts of God, the same as the external bounties; therefore, one’s encounter with, and employment of, them has to be in accordance with the consent of their real owner, i.e. the Almighty God, so that His trust is not breached. A teacher and educator should also consider students as trusts of God, entrusted to him/her in order to be taught the best material by the best method and to be trained in the best manner.
  1. Struggle against oblivion: As humankind is constantly on a crossing, one leading to infinite advancement and the other to infinite relapse, the instructed should always be made attentive to the significance of his/her situation, so that one is not conceited by the prime blessings of God and the temporal bounties. Such awareness prevents one both from being confused like some humanists who assume these privileges a reason for eternal pride, and from passing one’s time and entire life with negligence and vanity. Educators should also take advantage of the innate instincts of seeking self-interest and self-perfection, and avoiding harms in the process of speeding up one’s move toward perfection, as it is apparent in the teachings of the Holy Quran and the tradition of the infallibles (may God’s peace be upon them).
  1. Vivifying God remembrance: Taking the goal of human creation, i.e. attaining God’s proximity, into consideration, one has to vivify the remembrance of God in the heart of the instructed, so that the student is provided with spiritual peace and serenity, as well as a direction-finder to determine and/or correct one’s itinerary. This also can serve one to enhance one’s actions by injecting into it a divine motivation.
  1. Exchange of finite with the infinite: Considering the fact that the temporal life is a prelude to the hereafter, one should conclude two significant results: first, does not think of temporal pleasures and sufferings as cardinal; neither enamored with its joys, nor fear its pains. Secondly, one has to recognize the true value of every moment of one’s life, because by spending them in doing what God desires, one can attain eternal beatitude, as exhausting them in ways antagonist to values will lead to eternal misery. Therefore, every moment of life is priceless, not comparable to the value of tons of gold and diamond.
  1. Fighting dependency: Since ones perfection and eternal beatitude is solely determined by one’s own willful activity, and even liability for intercession (Shafa’at) should also be acquired through proper deeds, so the educator must revive the spirit of self-reliance and independence, reinforce a sense of responsibility and conscience, and struggle against encumberment, subjection, and subordination to others, and remind the instructed this point in all behaviors and encounters (i.e. in writing homework, etc.).
  1. Attentiveness toward freedom in action: Considering the role of free choice‌ in the human motion toward perfection, the instructed should be given the opportunity for freedom in action, instead of pushing him/her into passivity. An educator has to avoid making an imposition and infliction out of instructions and tutorials; instead, in cases that the expedience of the student necessitates an intervention by the educator, one has to be careful to do the job indirectly, so that the learner does not feel much pressure and limitation. For this reason, obligations should, as far as possible, accompany logical arguments and does not exceed the boundaries of guidance.
  1. Observing the principle of graduality: Taking the graduality of human progress and perfection, whether natural or acquired, into account, a teacher and educator should always be mindful about what the students age and natural/social factors necessitate. Accordingly, one has to try to elevate the instructed gradually and step by step, without expecting swift and sudden jumps, as he/she must take intelligent measures to prevent them from excessive academic or self-control activities which might result in physical ailment or spiritual disorder.
  1. Flexibility and equilibrium: Because of individual and group differences, necessary and rational flexibility should be observed in both programming curriculum and its enforcement. One has to also avoid insistence on rigid and monotonous schedules and those that does not make distinctions between different students, culminating in breaching their rights, and the frustration of most of them. Therefore, one has to take account of equilibrium as a principle.
  1. Giving priority to what is more important: Educators/teachers play a significant role in growing young students and cultivating their potentialities. Bearing this in mind, they have to carefully take the expedience of each and every learner into account, as well as what is suitable for the whole of the Islamic society and the human society in general. Both curriculum planners and educators should steer clear of programs and courses that waste time and squander life, or record low compared to superior goals. They should pay more attention to issues more effective regarding human eternal wellbeing (e.g. Islamic beliefs and ethics), and teach them more suitably and more appealingly, and try to set themselves as good role models for the behavior of their students.
  1. Natural and social knowledge: Social life is inevitable and has its requirements and obligations. On the other hand, material enjoyment is necessary for providing individual and social needs, and for sustaining the dignity and honor of the Islamic society. These facts reveal the necessity of introducing natural, mathematical, and social sciences to a curriculum, by delineating general and specialized syllabi, carefully taking into consideration students age and mental requirements as well as society needs and possibilities. It is worth mentioning that in all cases, the main goal, namely, proximity to the Almighty God has to be given special attention and vehemence. A pedagogue should never lose any opportunity for reviving divine motivations and transcendent values, and for removing negligence and fighting egoism. In other words, all goals are to be dealt with as introductions to the ultimate end.
  1. Reinforcing a sense of responsibility toward social expediency: The variety of social duties requires the educational system to be directed toward solidarity and altruism. Strengthening such virtues as cooperation, mutual aid, self-sacrifice, disinterestedness, benevolence, and seeking justice; and fighting vigorously such vices as selfishness, and indifference towards social expediencies should be high on the agenda of both those planning curricula and teachers/educators in treating students (Usul al-Kafi vol. 2, p. 163). Special emphasis has to be put on cultivating in the instructed such morale as chivalry, combating injustice, struggling corruption, taking jihad against tyrants, and supporting the oppressed and the deprived. In this way, qualified and efficient people are trained for building an ideal society who can play their roles in actualizing the divine goals on earth.

The article was written by ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi in Persian.

About Ali Teymoori

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