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Shaykh Abdalhaqq Bewley: Reflections on Education

Granada, January, Sunday 4th, 2015

Over the past couple of days we have learnt much about the inspiring educational projects being undertaken within our community at the present time and the exciting prospects that the future holds in store. I would like to begin, however, by indulging in a little retrospection and return to Norwich in the early eighties and perhaps our first serious attempt to educate the children of the community in a structured way. We started something called the Islamic Education Project and this was, at any rate historically speaking, the progenitor of all the various educational initiatives that have taken place within our community ever since. It was at the time that the first wave of children born into the community reached what might be termed school age and we were under pressure to either enter them into the state school system or to cater for their educational needs ourselves in a satisfactory way. Under the British system it is comparatively easy to provide out of school teaching to children, provided you can show the authorities concerned that those children are not being unduly disadvantaged by the education they receive.

There were three main grounds for our decision to go ahead in taking on the education of the children ourselves which can be loosely categorised under the headings: pedagogic, political and social. Pedagogically speaking we wanted to be able to base our teaching on our own values and have complete control over the curriculum. From the political point of view it was clear to us that for most children the dominant source of power in their lives was that exercised by the school authorities and we thought that by keeping the education of our children in our own hands that Islam would continue to be seen as the dominant power in their lives. On the social front, the thought was obviously to prevent the children from becoming totally assimilated into the prevalent social patterning, which was and is so inimical to Islam in so many vital respects. Our open objective in all these things was clearly to give the children the best possible opportunity of defining themselves as Muslims within a larger environment that was likely to do everything it could to prevent that happening.

So the model we came up with was a sort of combination of a traditional madrasa and a very simple primary school, starting every day with a couple of hours of Qur’an and basic Islamic studies and going on to the three r’s with some nature study and physical activity thrown in. We managed to carry on with this project, firstly in just the mosque and later in other more structured school-like settings as well, for about four years until it became obvious that it was no longer viable for us to carry on. There were various reasons for this that I won’t go into detail about now but they revolved around lack of professionalism, failure to meet the specialized educational needs of some of the children, parental worries about limited exposure to the world at large, and our inability to successfully make the jump into secondary education. The project did, however, succeed in its original objective, that of reinforcing the Muslim identity of the great majority of the children involved (borne out by the fact that almost all of them have remained committed Muslims to this day) and it was also successful in providing a more than adequate foundation in basic skills for most of them (borne out by the fact that many of them went on to achieve considerable academic distinction later on).

What first persuaded us into undertaking this perhaps overambitious enterprise – and what has also been the instigator of nearly all the other educational initiatives undertaken by the community since then – was our understanding, underpinned in so many ways by the teaching of our shaykh, of the ayat directly addressing the kafirun; “lakum deenukum wa liya deen – toyou your deen and to me my deen”, our understanding that Islam is so fundamentally different from the ethos of modernism, now overwhelmingly dominant and universally propagated in the world we live in, that we really have no alternative other than to counter it in every way we can, particularly with regard to our own education and that of those we are responsible for. As we know, Shaykh Abdalqadir has spent a whole lifetime doing precisely that.

In my talk for last year’s gathering, I also started with Surat al-Kafirun, making the point then that the present all pervasive version of deen al-kufr was the result of the total erosion within the modernist world view, due to its roots in scientific materialism, of any real comprehension of tawhid. Consequently any attempt to re-establish Islam in any meaningful way has to be based on regaining that true understanding of tawhid which enabled the early generations of Muslims to sweep aside everything that tried to impede them. This was what differentiated their deen from the unbelief of those who surrounded them, the piercing light that dispelled darkness and ignorance of the world at that time, and illuminated the world for so many subsequent centuries. It follows that this core differentiating factor must lie at the heart of any educational venture we embark upon and, as Allah’s Book makes clear time and time again, tawhid is not something that can be left to classes on aqida.

The Qur’an covers every aspect of existence, theology, eschatology, law, history, psychology, the natural world, and much more besides but what emerges in every instance is that all these matters are in Allah’s Hands, under His direct control at every moment. No star shines independent of Him, no planet revolves independent of Him, no natural catastrophe occurs independent of Him, no wind blows independent of Him, no plant or tree grows independent of Him, no leaf falls independent of Him, no bird flies independent of Him, no boat sails independent of Him, no battle is fought independent of Him, no good or bad thing happens inside us or outside us independent of Him. Then if you look at the ayats dealing with the driest legal prescriptions, inheritance, business, marriage and divorce, you will find in every case that Allah directly involves Himself in some way in the proceedings. His Presence is ubiquitous and continual in every thing that happens and it is absolutely essential that this be explicitly or implicitly conveyed by some means in the way that everything is taught in every educational institution we establish.

Another way that our deen is at odds with the world around us is the way we view space and time. This is something that, as Muslims, we are all aware of but do not always give the importance it deserves. Here we are at the time when all around us are celebrating Christmas and the new year. This year we are also celebrating the Mawlid of our Prophet, salla’llahu ‘alahi wa sallam, at exactly the same time. The significant thing about this is that next year we won’t be. When the emperor Constantine assimilated Christianity into his dominions and made it the official religion of the empire, he dovetailed the major Christian festivals together with the great pagan feast days of the old religion. These were all based on the seasonal changes of the solar year and the pagan rituals that accompanied them. Christmas is, of course, a prime example of one of these and has now all but totally lost its Christian connection and completely reverted to its debauched pagan origins. By tying our calendar and festivals to the lunar cycle, the Prophet, salla’llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, ensured that the Muslims would never be caught up in a return to pagan practices nor in the over-structuralisation of time that dependence on the solar calendar brings in its wake.

What applies to the months and years also applies to the days. In Britain there is a common description of a normal working day as being from 9 to 5. Here and in other places the times may be slightly different but the principle remains the same. People’s lives are governed by the clock: by rigid mechanical time. For the Muslim, daily time is governed by the movement of the sun throughout the year and the way that that regulates the times of the prayer. The length of our day varies considerably as the seasons change. It is not that non-muslims don’t notice the seasonal changes, it is just that they impose a fixed structure onto them, rigidly adhering to a unchanging framework. we, on the other hand, breathe in and out with the seasonal changes. It is not that we do not have a structure, but that structure is flexible and moves with the natural rhythms of the year. This has a far profounder effect on the individual than is sometimes imagined, as was brought home to me by something that happened many years ago in Morocco.

I was staying with Shaykh Sidi Salih, rahimahu’llah, for the summer moussem which that branch of our tariqa hold high in the Middle Atlas near the tomb of his grandfather Sidi Tayyibi. He had been buried far below in the valley near Zawiyya ash-Shaykh but was reburied up the mountain, after appearing to his son in a dream when the French arrived, saying he wanted to be taken out of their reach. In the end his tomb became the place of the last stand of those who fought against the French colonial presence in Morocco. Anyway every August a large village of black tents appears and all the fuqara of the region come with their families to do dhikr, eat sheep, and show off and ride their beautiful horses. Among them on this particular occasion was an old man in his late seventies who had come from Casablanca to experience the life of the fuqara first hand.

One morning the muadhdhin announced the time of fajr. He used to do this by climbing up onto a high rock close by, waiting till he saw the first light come into the sky, and then calling the adhan. On this morning, after the prayer had been done, the old man approached the muadhdhin and said he had called the adhan too early. He produced a prayer timetable and a magnificent silver pocket watch and pointed to the time it should, by his reckoning, have been called. The muadhdhin told him he had seen light in the sky but the old man went on insisting that the time was wrong. Several of the senior fuqara got involved in the discussion but the old man would not give up his position; it was almost as if his life depended on it. This went on till after sunrise; the fuqara would not allow the man to have his way. Finally something gave way within the old man’s heart and he broke down in tears. He wept for more than an hour but when he recovered his composure he was a transformed being. He went up the mountain shackled by self-imposed chains. He descended the mountain a free man.

More difficult to pinpoint precisely than the time issue, and more difficult to counteract, but also probably more important from the standpoint of education, is the difference between the kafir and Muslim understanding of space. This was once vividly articulated for me in the Rawda of the Prophet, salla’llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. In the 80’s I was at one point privileged to stay for an extended period in Madina and I used, al-hamdulillah, to spend every day sitting in the Rawda. There was a group of Mauritanians, resident in Madina, who had appointed themselves to police the Rawda, a sort of holy mafia, but luckily I met with their approval. One day I was sitting with one of them right up against the grill which surrounds the tomb. He turned to me and said, “Look Abdalhaqq, you must be on your guard; there are a lot of liars out there. There are people who say they have gone to the moon but Allah says about the heavens: la yanfudhuna illa bi’l-sultan ‘You will not pierce through (them) except with a clear authority,’ and He would never give authority to a kafir. And they also say that the earth is round but Allah says: wa’lardi kayfa sutihat ‘and (look) at the earth, how it is flattened out.’ They’re just lying. Don’t believe a word they say.”

Now, on the surface, you might say that this man was ingenuous to the point of stupidity but the truth is that though he might have been wrong empirically he was right in that he was truly making Allah’s Book his arbiter in all things and there is no doubt that from the perspective of the Qur’an human beings live with both feet firmly placed on the flat earth with the sun and moon and stars revolving around us. The kafir view, dictated by the flawed criteria of scientific materialism, is that we live on an insignificant mineral mass, a mere part of a minor planetary system, one of countless others lost in the unimaginable vastness of limitless space. Dr E. A. Burtt eloquently expressed the implications for the human being that this has entailed:

“It was of the greatest consequence for succeeding thought that now the great Newton’s authority was squarely behind that view of the cosmos which saw in man a puny irrevelant spectator (insofar as a being wholly imprisoned in a dark room can be called such) of the vast mathematical system whose regular motions according to mechanical principles constituted the world of nature…The world that people had thought themselves living in – a world rich with colour and sound – a world of purposive harmony and creative ideals no longer existed except in imagination. The real world outside was a hard, cold, colourless, silent and dead world – a world of quantity, a world of mathematically computable motions in mechanical regularity.”

For the human being the result has been devastating, just like being suddenly uprooted from a small village environment where everyone is known to each other, the hierarchy clear and unquestioned, all the relationships tried, tested and trusted, the atmosphere benign, all the paths well-trodden, every corner familiar, every livelihood assured, and off-loaded into the alienation and impersonality of a giant modern megapolis whose barren streets seem to go on forever, where every quarter is the same yet unfamiliar, where the dominant energy is fear and mistrust, where even near neighbours are strangers.

Now, as I said, counteracting this total change of perspective is no easy matter; all of us have been affected by it to a greater or lesser extent. It has resulted in people living largely in their heads and not their bodies as D H Lawrence so cogently pointed out in so many ways. The end result is the virtual world of the video game, where multitudes of young men and women of today – and a good many not so young – imagine that they are having all kinds of adventures, violent and otherwise, when all they are in fact doing is moving a finger or two. And a lot of them have real difficulty in dealing with the world they are actually living in. Worse still is the transfer of this technology to the real world when men and women looking at a screen can massacre by drone whole families ten thousand miles away with as little impact on themselves as if it were a video game.

In my youth it was common for many people, young and old, to know the names of all the flowers and trees, all the flora and fauna, in the countryside around them, something that has now, in my experience, become something rare indeed. It was a sign that they were truly at home in the place where they lived. They were in the Qur’anic phrase: “firmly established on the earth.” This is something that urgently needs to be regained, both by ourselves and those we teach, if we are to be successful in properly establishing Allah’s deen and in passing it on to succeeding generations. We must get out of our heads and back into our bodies, become proper inhabitants of the earth not disembodied minds floating about in non-existent cyberspace, establish ourselves once more firmly on the earth. From that firm base we really will, insha’allah, be given authority by Allah to pierce through the heavens and, in the words of Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib: “Fly from it on the wings of contemplation to the Lote Tree of the Furthest limit.”

These are just three of the factors that set us apart from those around us. Another is, of course, Allah’s prohibition of usury, emphasis on which has been such an important element in Shaykh Abdalqadir’s teaching over the years and which we have looked at from every angle on many occasions. The point is that all these differentiating factors should be stressed and savoured and taught and acted upon in every possible way if we are to authentically re-establish.

Allah’s deen in the age we live in and give the people of this time a genuine alternative to the nihilistic path of debt-fueled, untrammeled consumerism they are careering down to their inevitable self-destruction. Doing that will also give us the space and discrimination needed to enable us, in the way our shaykh is constantly indicating to us, to draw on our common heritage and gain from human history the valuable lessons and examples the past has bequeathed to us and chart a clear course into the future for the human race.

Speaking of the past, I recently came across a small treatise written by Imam al-Ghazali, rahimahu’llah, on the education of young children and I thought I would finish by sharing a couple of things from it with you. He says at the beginning:

“A child is a trust in the care of its parents, for its pure heart is a precious uncut jewel devoid of any form or carving, which will accept being cut into any shape, and will be disposed according to the guidance it receives from others. If it is habituated to and instructed in goodness then this will be its practice when it grows up and it will attain to felicity in this world and the Next; its parents too, and all its teachers will share in the reward. Similarly, should it be habituated to evil and neglected, then misery and perdition will be its lot, and the responsibility for this will be borne by its guardian and supervisor.”

A little later, while speaking of punishment and reward, the Imam makes these surprisingly modern observations, belying the behaviour usually attributed to educators in the distant past:

“Whenever a good trait or action manifests itself in children it should be admired and rewarded with something that gives them joy and they should be praised in front of others. But when, every so often, they do something bad it is best to pretend not to notice and not to bring it to the attention of others, particularly if the child concerned has diligently tried to conceal the action, for the exposure or punishment of such deeds is more likely confirm children in them, to the point that they no longer mind exposure or even seek it. Should the action be repeated several times, the child involved should be privately reproached and made to realize that it is a very serious thing. However, such children should not be spoken to at length too often as that will accustom them to being blamed and destroy the effectiveness that such words have on their hearts.”

What I really want to take from this work of Imam al-Ghazali, however, is his supreme emphasis on good character. He says categorically that the essential first step in the learning process must be the acquisition of good character, this being mandatory on the part of both teachers and students, that it must permeate any the teaching of any branch of knowledge, and that without it no knowledge can serve any useful purpose. He freely admits that he has borrowed much of what he says from the ancient past and, if we take the words of the Prophet, salla’llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, that he was only sent to perfect noble qualities of character and their confirmation many centuries later by the great English educator, Thomas Arnold, and our own shaykh’s insistence upon the vital nature of futuwwa within the education process, we can see that good character has always been the basis and objective of true education throughout the whole of human history and can only accept that it must also be at the very forefront of any and all of the educational initiatives we ourselves undertake. As educators, teachers and parents it is therefore vital for us to follow the guidance we have been given and embody as many of the good qualities of character we can and instill those qualities into all those for whom we are responsible. Only then will we be able to achieve the high goal we have set for ourselves, that of preparing a new generation of Muslims to take Allah’s deen into the years ahead.

Before setting off to this event I was talking to my wife, Hajja Latifa, about it and she said that after her many years of teaching she had come to the conclusion that education basically boiled down to three things: stimulating the desire for knowledge in one’s students, building up their confidence, and establishing a strong identity. These seem to me to be very worthy objectives and I ask Allah to give success to all our educational initiatives in general, and The School of the Shaykh, in particular in stimulating the desire for knowledge in all who attend them so that they may become truly people of deep learning and a source of inspiration for all who meet them; that they may gain the confidence they need to face a world with which they will frequently be at odds and retain their authenticity and integrity in all the situations they meet; and that their identity as Muslims may be made so strong that the light of Islam will accompany all of them throughout all of their lives in this world and see them safely into the Next.