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Educating to Lead: A Reflection

By Shafeeq Hussain Vazhathodi

While analyzing the Keralite Muslims and their organizational affiliations, the very first reflection I have is:  we are more emotional than rational  or even spiritual. Emotion is closer to obstinacy, not wanting to be corrected; being rational is intellectual; and being spiritual is about upholding the truth.  The Qur’anic word that denotes ‘truth’ is al-haqq.  It is relevant to remember here that the Holy Qur’an uses haqq not merely to refer to the revelation (wahy). Rather, it is also used while mentioning  natural  elements such as the sky, the earth, the cloud, etc.  It appears to me that we are spending most of our ‘rational and intellectual’ potentials to work within a paradigm made in the organizational settings. Almost the entire intellectual, and spiritual, rather religious, energies are misused for the sole purpose of promoting the interests of different factions. The factional affiliations promote a viewpoint that Islam is partisan, ‘egoistic,’ individualized, and self-centred, especially to our neighbours.

But the organizational factionalism does not justify labelling Islam in Kerala as ‘Keralite Islam.’ I would disagree with using  a term like ‘Keralite Islam,’ simply because neither the authentic sources of Islam are ‘Keralites,’ nor the specificity of the historical experiences of Keralite Muslims have been particularly very ‘Islamic’. Rather, Islam in Kerala has been more ‘pragmatic and secular,’ thus denoting the adaptability of Islam to a cultural heritage, as long as it does not contradict the authenticity. In this regard, it should be noted that mostly those, who convert to Islam in the modern times, do so after comprehending the authentic sources of Islam, rather than after following the life-styles of a Muslim, or of a Muslim community.  In fact, why a large number of the educated people, who frequently observe the chaotic situations in the so-called Muslim countries, tend not to convert is exactly for the same reason.  Instead of accessing the original and authentic sources, they evaluate Islam on the basis of Muslims’ practices at the personal and collective levels.

During a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kochi, I remember sitting next to a teacher from Kerala who worked in Brunei.   I was basking in the glory that in the doctoral studies I was acclaimed to have done an excellent job of proposing a model curriculum for Islamic religious higher education. I was thrilled because the examiners had commented so highly about it.   As he was teaching in Brunei, which is also a Kingdom governed by a practising Muslim king like Saudi Arabia, he had first-hand experience of what education is to Muslims. During the conversation, I was so  humbled that all my theoretical elaborations,  which I had developed by a thorough analysis of the various sources including the authentic ones, was questioned by this teacher, who was not even a Muslim.  He simply asked me: why then all this chaos in the Muslim world that not a single country is an exemplar of Islam as such?

I was very keen to prove that Islamic education should be faith-based, knowledge-centric, value-oriented, and devoted to human-wellbeing and civilizational development.   In the tradition of Islamic theologians, interpreters, and philosophers, I was also arguing by drawing on religious texts and divine verses to find religious foundations for my claims. But I finally realized that not many Muslims embody such practices in their real life.

In fact, the claim of pure comprehension of authentic source as solution in itself is proven to be false and ‘unscientific’, if these ideals are not upheld as exemplars by Muslims in their daily life.   This is where the Revelation (wahy) ceases to be revelation, especially when Muslims, including I, are unable to personalize Islam in its holistic sense. But how do we articulate the essence or spirit of Islam? Do I personalize them in a way that I am able to ignite a dialogue?  Must we, as Muslims, collectively live Islam so that our friends and neighbours are encouraged to perceive Islam in positive terms? We are far removed from one another; not just the followers of different religions, but even the followers of the same religion, belonging to different factional groups.

 Yet, it is not difficult to understand why this is so.  The way we understand religion is more personal and less communal and social.  Various educational institutions affiliated to the organizational structure are subscribing to religions from such a ‘personalized’ perspective.  Critical importance of religion to larger societal goals is not considered in the traditional religious educational centres (madrassas).  Thus, while talking about experiences of Kerala Muslims, I want to talk about our experiences of schooling in general, which includes  the so-called Muslim countries. In fact, we were taught many ‘topics’ and ‘facts’ about Islam that we failed to transform into ‘knowledge.’  In the terminology of modern science, such facts represent data, which is not even ‘information’. We continue the same tradition in our higher learning institutions.  This makes us severely incapable of analytical formulations of the underlying essence of religious topics in terms of their fundamental principles and essential concepts. In other words, learning at higher stages is a search for meaning and, to construct meaning, the students must imbibe the religious ideals of   justice, freedom, goodness, truth, and beauty.  As men of knowledge, the ‘ulamā’ are attributed the highest status as the ‘heirs of prophets’. The prophets, who were commissioned with this mission, played unmistaken religious, social, political and educational roles.  In the present day terminology, they were rather social engineers or constructivists.

The Islamic tradition records a glamorous past.  In The rise of colleges: Institutions of learning in Islam and the West, G Makdisi notes  that the colleges in the classical times vigorously promoted scholasticism through methods such as ta‘līqah, khilāf, jadal, mudhākarah, munāzarah etc. These methods should not only be re-invented and practiced within their essential framework, but they should also be integrated with developments in recent times. Rather, the religious scholar-researchers should be trained with first-hand experience of tafsīr, ta’wīl, ijtihad, qiyās and taught to utilize the inductive and deductive methods. We have failed to do so, and have, hence, created false leaders, who have lost adab and focused on wrong priorities, as Naquib al-Attas has put it. In this context, it should be noted that traditionally fiqh enjoyed greater prominence in Islam, as fiqh is essentially the practical manifestation of Islam in the everyday lives, covering Muslims’ individual ritualistic and the collective social, transactional, legal, criminal, political, and financial concerns of the community. Thus, the educational activities of the past were centred on community development, having their roots in the idea of an ‘active society’ in which social passivity was held to be a moral evil.

In summary, as long as Kerala Muslims fail to lead their followers at every front, including the intellectual and the spiritual ones, they can never expect their organizational culture to improve for considering social wellbeing, community, and social participation as their core agenda. To recognize and learn from error, we must accept and grow from criticism, which is impossible if our ‘organizational’ affiliations keep us obstinate.  We should protest against such narrow factional thinking!

[Shafeeq Hussain Vazhathodi is Assistant Professor at Department of Education and Social Science, UNIVERSITI TEKNOLOGI MALAYSIA. In 2011, he completed Ph.D. in Education at International Islamic University of Malaysia. He can be reached at]

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