The Hegemony of Knowledge and Academic Terrorism vs. Desire of the Aspirant In the Etiquettes of the Teacher and Student

Translation & Editing: Sayyid Burair Abbas

Proofreading & Review: Dr. Muhammad Jaffer


Some Western researchers have adopted an interesting academic perspective on the question of why Europe progressed during the Dark Ages while the Muslims, who were previously ahead of Europe by several centuries, precipitously declined. How did the Europeans come to carry the emblem of scholarship while they were in cultural depravity, all the while Muslims relinquished this emblem despite the wealth of intellectual heritage they had accumulated over seven to eight golden centuries?[1]

This perspective inculpates the education system established during the Abbasid era for this regression: a system of education that presided over the various branches of Islamic knowledge even after the collapse of the Abbasid state.

 Challenges of Current Educational System

It is not farfetched to propose that this education system had a significant role in the decline of Islamic civilization, and we do not mean here the curriculum or the apparent form of tutelage, rather I seek to analyze the deeper issues. I would like to shed light here on the relationship between the teacher and the student, which is one of the most important aspects of the education system in the Abbasid era. Muslim scholars, especially the ethicists among them, wrote about the etiquette that governs the relationship between the teacher and the student. One of the most famous of these books and works is the book ‘Munyah al-Murīd fi Adāb al-Mufīd wa al-Mustafīd‘ [Desire of the Aspirant In the Etiquettes of  the Teacher and the Student] by Al-Shahīd Al-Thani (965 AD), and these works have offered much high literature that we still need today more than ever, although the mindset that dominates some of these books is not immune to critique and some important observations as below:

1. The main problem of this methodology is the centrality of the teacher and the instructor; in the educational system that we inherited from the Abbasid era that was further influenced by ethical literature, the dominant method of instruction was in the form of study circles held in mosques and similar locations. Students would encircle a teacher who would impart knowledge, while they would write it down. He would dictate to them hadiths and other things, and they would write them down live while encircling him; in this way, the system of dictation and the centrality of the teacher and study circles emerged. This system suffers from several problems, and here we do not study it as a natural physical phenomenon in which a man sits in the center and they surround him while he presents the data he has acquired; instead, we seek to examine the mental and psychological image here that this physical form impresses, even if its outward form should change. For example, it is not important whether we sit today on chairs or on floors or whether we use projectors; rather what is important is that we are not always attached to this rigid form of learning derived from the historical remnants of this study circle pedagogy.

From here, some religious seminaries are blameworthy in how they have attempted to update their pedagogy only based on the formalities of the education system; they have focused on chairs, desks, boards, and projector screens, recording lessons, and making them easily transferable over the internet or integrated discs, etc. We don’t doubt that these are natural and spontaneous developments that should certainly be applied if they prove useful and feasible in a religious institution. However, the problem is that the mentality of pedagogy remains the same old mentality across the educational spectrum.

Repercussions of the Current Educational System

We will mention some of its negative repercussions here. Some of the most prominent of these issues are as follows:

A) Relying on the quantitative standard in knowledge without the qualitative: meaning that this system over time might help increase the amount of information I possess because the teacher is constantly bombarding me with ideas and information, which increases the amount of information I have. However, this alone does not give me the ability to embody the role of the teacher, meaning it does not teach me how to produce ideas the way this person whom I have the honor of studying under generates them. From here, I need a specific methodology that trains me on this process, such as the discussion system (al-mubahathah) which is used in religious schools; this is an excellent and exceptional system in closing some of the gaps I would face due to the rote learning approach.

If I adopted a different approach that combined my receiving information from the teacher and applying the process of creating new knowledge, I would gain two experiences: the quantitative element that the teacher provides me, and the qualitative element that I offer to the teacher so that he can assess my approach in action and give me the ability to apply knowledge, not just take it from others. From here, there is a need for sessions that produce knowledge in front of the teacher besides the lecture-based system. In this way, we combine action and emotion, receptivity and production, and positivity and negativity in this sense. I will not lose the quantitative element, nor will I miss the qualitative element.

B) Breaking down the barriers of fear and hesitation: because we know that human behavior is not only based on knowledge but also on dedication. For example, my teacher may teach me for ten continuous years, all the while producing new knowledge, and I might come to understand his methodology and approach. I may know how he generates ideas, but that’s not enough. The instruction of my teacher only gives me knowledge about his methodology of producing knowledge, but it does not create a strong desire within me to embody his personality. This dedication is not just a personal characteristic, but it is what disintegrates the barriers of fear and hesitation. If I do not learn to practice this act of producing knowledge in front of my teacher and I cannot obtain his tacit approval, it may be difficult for me to trust my own ability to achieve anything unless I have a very unshakeable sense of dedication and a strong helping of self-confidence.

Therefore, there is an urgent need for a system of productive action for knowledge under the guidance of the teacher. Because relying on this action will create self-confidence, not just mere discussions among students as they learn from each other what they have studied, but also the production of scholarship in front of the teacher so that they can acquire desire and interest and overcome any obstacles towards achieving self-confidence.

2. If we overcome the teaching system in this manner, we find ourselves facing the educational relationship between the teacher and the student. What we observe in many of our religious educational centers is that the teacher puts himself in a position of authority and awe in the minds of his students, causing the student to be raised with fear and apprehension of the teacher, as if he were a monster. These are some of our methods in primary and secondary schools and in universities and religious schools. The teacher has a sacred aura, so much so that some of our ethical systems have turned him into something holy that is feared. He has convinced himself that he is superior to others and deals with his students as though he were a political leader or military commander. Here we find the arrogance of some teachers who impose their authority on students and destroy their desire, motivation, and self-confidence, creating obstacles between the two parties.

Annihilation of Student Spirit & Proposed Redemption

On this level, what we notice kills the sense of academic implementation in the student is as follows:

A) Some teachers and some of our ethical literature rely on a method of frightening the subconscious mind of the student. So, when the student is discussing, the teacher feels that he still has a long way to go to be able to criticize and that only understanding should be required of him. If he understands what is said, he will have the best of both worlds, and we have seen and heard of some university teachers scolding students before their PhDs for thinking and criticizing. It is as if by doing so they create a barrier protecting them from their students’ observations, because the soul is rebellious against accepting criticism from mere pupils who are separated from them by distances of study and learning. Some university teachers in our Islamic countries have turned into what resemble war generals who are feared by others. What value is there in transmitting information without educational protection? What does the separation of tutelage from education mean? Even if we entered religious schools, we would find the same thing, but within different forms and methods of fear and intimidation. Some teachers, including senior teachers, do not hesitate to destroy the students’ personalities and extend the distances for them to reach scholarship, believing that they are sacredly preserving knowledge and preventing it from being exploited. They forget or ignore that this type of educational system in teaching kills the sense of creativity and creates complexes of deficiency in people’s personalities. Rather the rule here should be to let him make a mistake so he can reach the truth.

B) Some teachers adopt a style of complicating ideas instead of simplifying them, or presenting students with information that is beyond their current level, in order to show themselves as knowledgeable and strong. This style sometimes compensates for a lack of self-confidence and the need to be perceived as powerful in front of the students. Using complexity as a shield protects them from student challenges and reinforces their image in front of them, causing the students to become immersed in his speech, leading to complicated discussions and studies between them in order to study his lesson and think about it until they understand it. This way of presenting information also helps to hinder productive action in knowledge, as it will occupy the new generations in understanding what others say, rather than freeing up time and space for them to produce what they have. If in our schools, universities, and religious institutions we would instead carry a fatherly and educational spirit, we shorten the time for the new generation, preventing them from engaging in creativity and generating ideas, instead of sinking and draining their energy in just understanding what was created or said by the previous generations.

C) In our educational circles, we rarely find close personal relationships between teachers and students outside the classroom or lecture halls. There is usually only a limited connection or interest shown by one party toward the other, especially by teachers toward their students. Yet, from an educational and religious point of view, we need to establish friendly relationships. So why do some teachers fear becoming friends with their students outside the study halls? Can this be interpreted in some cases as a desire to create a sacred awe around oneself so as to maintain a social status that satisfies the inner ego of a person?

We need teachers who believe in their students and do not discriminate against them based on social class, of course to the extent possible; because this helps build their confidence in themselves. We understand the circumstances sometimes due to the high number of students or security issues or concerns or similar, but at least we should not prevent such relationships from materializing; for this is the meaning of humility in Islamic etiquette. Humility is not lowering both arms and bowing the head and bending the back and lowering the gaze and speaking with humble words that flatter here and there; rather it is an earnest posture that obliges a person to greatly reflect on his position, status, and honor, even for the sake of appearance. But Allah rewards whoever humbles himself in front of Him, so this is the elevated Islamic etiquette that we do not want to turn into superficial protocols and gestures that show their disingenuity in critical moments. Rather it is a difficult psychological nurturing; it is a confrontation with the self in its desire to negate superiority over others.

We don’t deny that some forms of humility mentioned by some ethicists can harm a person’s dignity and honor which Allah does not approve for the believer. But this does not mean we ought to crystallize caste-based classifications that only represent names we claim for ourselves and our ancestors from the past. Yes, humility is a diligent stance that may burden a person at times, as he may lose some prestige on the social level because people are accustomed, especially in our countries, to respecting those who suppress them, even in this class-oriented way and disrespecting those who respect and show love to them; this, of course, being the result of our psychologically defeated mentality on several fronts in our Islamic nations. People convince themselves that their humility is in riding a non-luxurious car, living in an ordinary unglamorous house, smiling at others, visiting their homes, allowing them to criticize, or living with them as one of them, etc. They say that all of these actions are an insult to my dignity, status, and position. How was the Prophet and the family of the Prophet fulfilling the title “By Allah, when he [Imam ‘Ali{a}] was with us, he was like one of us“?[2]

Did they distinguish themselves by being rude, making artificial calm gestures, suppressing others from asking questions, or criticizing them? We do not know for sure how those ethicists and mystics reached a status equal to praise and condemnation. Did they use these methods or others?

Reducing this class distinction between teachers and students in our schools, universities, and religious institutions will help to create self-confidence in the student and not frighten the recipient, which will also enhance the opportunities for creativity and action on his part.

D) In the context of the educational relationship, the role of praise and criticism comes from the teacher toward the student. Many teachers shy away from praising their outstanding students, and this reluctance has its justifications in many cases, especially if the environment is miserable. The student may exploit the praise written or said by the teacher for him, in a way that goes against ethics and manners, which pushes many teachers to refrain from praising their students out of fear of such situations. This is an accepted apprehension that a sensible person would understand, but it should not dominate the teacher’s life. The good should not be overpowered by the bad of the student, and the teacher should not lose the tone of encouraging praise that creates huge electrical energy in the student’s psyche that drives him forward and empowers him for long distances ahead occasionally.

On the other hand, when reprimanding a student – which is necessary for disciplining, directing, or guiding them – harshness in reprimand should not be assumed to the extent of destroying the student’s spirit and confidence. Some teachers deliver their lectures to hundreds of students, implying that none of them understands what the teacher is saying and that he is only addressing a small number of attendees. This destructive approach is distant from ethical values and Islamic manners, as it humiliates hundreds of students in this harsh manner. We are not giving hypothetical examples here, but rather presenting real examples that we have encountered in our lives and the lives of those we know.

There is no value to knowledge without education and no impact of scholarship without purification.

E) In the context of praising and criticizing students, the issue of granting them evidence of their academic status arises, and we find here a problem in both universities and religious institutions.

As for the problem in the university context, it lies in the policies that many of our Muslim countries put in place to limit the granting of higher degrees, out of fear of securing job opportunities. In many of our Islamic countries, reaching higher levels of education is not conditioned solely on the student’s academic qualification; rather it requires a political, social, or financial patron for the student to enter the academic position that his academic qualifications should have earned him. Through this path, the rich can enter the university and its higher stages without qualification, while the poor, even if qualified, cannot. The influential person is granted admission notwithstanding how meritorious a non-influential person might be.

The logic of “loyalties before qualifications” is prevalent, and political loyalty becomes more important than academic qualifications in entering universities, graduating from them, and securing job opportunities; when this problem evades inspection, countries lose their elites and their capabilities, and their efforts are wasted. Unfortunately, this happens in many places in our Islamic countries.

As for the problem with the religious situation: in some religious seminaries, we find some manifestations of the aforementioned logic. If you do not belong to a specific trend, you will be restricted in this religious institute or that religious school, even if you are academically qualified, and there is no discussion about it. In some religious schools, if it leaks that you do not emulate so-and-so or that you follow so-and-so, you will lose some positions and opportunities. Meanwhile, if you are loyal to such and such, you will obtain a high-ranking post, with no ostensible limit to what you can achieve.

This existing problem is accompanied by another problem, which is the problem of certificates. Recently, in the Shia community, a project has begun to issue certificates indicating the academic position of the student in their religious studies, and this is a commendable project that began with the College of Jurisprudence in Najaf, but it has witnessed a renaissance today at the Center for Religious Seminary in Qom, Iran, specifically at al-Mustafa University. However, in other locations, the situation still prevails with a non-diploma-based approach, wherein there is no certification for having obtained knowledge. The absence of such certificates is not a decisive indicator either, but it opens the door to more chaos, and it is necessary to determine the student’s position to give them the opportunity to assume their responsibilities.

In this framework, there is the issue of ijtihad certificates. There are two general attitudes in the seminaries since ancient times: an attitude of extreme rigidity, where the professor rarely gives any ijtihad certificate to his thousands of his students over time, despite teaching for decades; then there is a less rigid attitude that allows for more confidence in the students’ academic levels.

We believe that an objective criterion should be established for granting ijtihad certificates, neither in an excessively lenient nor a cautious, rigid manner as though the ijtihad certificate were a recognition of prophethood. From a personal point of view, we are convinced that there are hundreds who deserve ijtihad certificates but are not granted them due to a lack of trust, relationship, caution, or other reasons.

Partial ijtihād[3] does not imply that the mujtahid is most knowledgeable (al-a’lamiyyah) or that he has become a source of emulation; rather it is only a certification of knowledge and expertise. Our problem is that we still believe that every mujtahid is a deputy of the infallible Imam, the proof of God on earth, and suitable for religious authority. As for those who hold a position of this kind, a series of conditions befitting this position are required, only one of which is diligence in jurisprudence and principles. This oversimplification has been very harmful from many dimensions, even if it has benefited in some other less important matters.

We should not underestimate the efforts of outstanding students – who are many – and should not destroy their vigor and intellectual unity. We have many of these potentials in our seminaries, Alhamdullilah. Neglecting them and showing a lack of confidence in them in our communities, in pursuit of the precautionary approach and a strategy of preventing possible harm at the expense of potential benefits, has cost us a great deal of opportunities and potential.

We call for a balanced approach in this matter; we do not accept oversimplifying academic matters as some do, nor belaboring for the sake of other positions; but this does not mean we should be excessive in our rigidity such that it causes us to lose promising and productive potentials.

Regarding this issue, there is a matter of respecting the efforts of students and others in providing their scientific assistance to the teacher or scientific institution. We have found a widespread phenomenon in some circles where some students may help their teacher in preparing a research paper, and have an active role in this, but when it is desired to publish and distribute it to the public, the names of those who participated are absent and only the name of the teacher appears. This is a great injustice whether the student agrees to it or not. Encouraging rather than exploiting their efforts ought to be required, and revealing the services they have provided is the prerequisite of honesty and integrity. It is not acceptable for dozens of people to contribute to the writing of a book, and then the teacher commandeers this effort and publishes the book under only his name to remain his book throughout history.

He persuades the student with sweet words or with material compensation, as this is a great injustice. We have found some even write for others and receive compensation, and then the books are published under names that do not belong to the owners. I don’t know how this situation concords with the high values of religion, and with the values of not belittling people’s belongings, respecting others in their persona, property, vulnerabilities, views, and with the values of honesty and loyalty.

Based on the premise that education is a responsibility, not just a position, I wanted to quote some religious texts in this context. In the Letter of Rights by Imam ‘Ali bin al-Ḥusayn, it says: “And the right of your subjects through knowledge is that you should know that God established you over them through what He has granted you of knowledge, and the authority He has assigned you over His treasures of wisdom. So if you excel in teaching the people and do not betray them nor become annoyed with them, Allah will increase His favor to you. But if you withhold your knowledge from the people or betray them when they seek knowledge from you, it is Allah, may He be glorified and exalted, who has the right to deprive you of knowledge and its radiance, and to remove you from people’s hearts.”[4]

Pedagogical Practice in Religious Texts

This informative text presents us with several concepts:

1) First Concept: This is the concept of giving knowledge, which is the concept of the zakat of knowledge that is encouraged in the ahadith. In a report from Imam Ali(a), it is stated that “God did not require ignorant people to learn until He required knowledgeable people to teach.”[5] Thus, teaching is a duty, and this contradicts monopolizing knowledge or claiming that it must be hoarded. Hoarding knowledge is not correct except when there is an obstacle preventing the giving of knowledge, not as a principle. In another report from Ali, it is stated that “wealth decreases from expenditure but knowledge increases by spending”.[6] Except in rare circumstances, we do not find it appropriate that some people underestimate others’ intellects, keeping knowledge secret while stating that obedience is what is required, and that knowledge is only for the initiated. This statement does not apply to religious culture, which promotes the dissemination of scholarship and propagating knowledge.

Allah says,

(Indeed, those who conceal what We sent down of clear proofs and guidance after We made it clear for the people in the Scripture – those are cursed by Allah and cursed by those who curse).[7]

And He says,

(O People of the Scripture, there has come to you Our Messenger making clear to you much of what you used to conceal of the Scripture and overlooking much).[8]

Therefore, miserliness with truth and knowledge under the pretext of respecting truth and venerating knowledge, instead of helping people understand the truth and comprehend knowledge is a counterfeit view in Islamic culture. I believe that the oppressive circumstances experienced by philosophers and mystics may play a historical role in promoting such a culture as a core tenet rather than as an exception.

2) Second Concept: This is to be gentle and patient with those whom we teach, in contrast to being rude, impatient, foolish, and malevolent in teaching. This is often noticed due to the lack of patience in some teachers, including prominent figures in the field. In this context, Allah says,

(So by mercy from Allah,{O Muhammad} you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you).[9]

Mercy and compassion in tutelage and education is an original principle. Allah says,

(There has certainly come to you a Messenger from among yourselves. Grievous to him is what you suffer; {he is} concerned over you {i.e., your guidance} and to the believers is kind and merciful).[10]

As for the logic of harshness, impatience, lack of forbearance for people’s psychologies, and the disregard for students’ mediocrity, then this is contrary to justice and fairness.

3) We previously talked about the necessity of linking and integrating education and upbringing, and that any separation between them can harm even the productivity of education itself. Education is not just related to scholarship only, but it is a connection with each other’s minds. Rather, it is a relationship that continues to connect hearts as well, whether we feel it or not.

And thus, we conclude by talking about the characteristic of the teacher in himself, outside the framework of classrooms and teaching ranks. This is a characteristic that the preacher of Allah must also possess, to match words with actions. This is not just the responsibility of moral scholars, but the responsibility of all science teachers in the circle of what they direct their students towards. Allah says,

(O you who have believed, why do you say what you do not do? Greatly hateful in the sight of Allah is that you say what you do not do).[11]

(Do you order righteousness of the people and forget yourselves while you recite the Scripture? Then will you not reason?).[12]

In our jurisprudential research on enjoining good and forbidding evil, we have concluded that it is not farfetched to assume that its obligation implies another obligation: that a person should not be someone who says what he does not do, commands what he does not follow, or forbids what he does not abandon. Appealing to the rationale of enjoining good and forbidding evil is forbidden unless the doer is just; the details of this discussion will be deferred here.

In contrast to the attribute of the teacher is the attribute of the student, the most important of which is patience. The path of knowledge and education is difficult, long, and arduous, so he should aim to get closer to God Almighty by that, and not intend to become such-and-such in knowledge in order to settle an account with so-and-so; Allah says,

((Moses said to him, “May I follow you on {the condition} that you teach me from what you have been taught of sound judgment?” He said, “Indeed, with me, you will never be able to have patience. And how can you have patience for what you do not encompass in knowledge?” {Moses} said, “You will find me, if Allah wills, patient, and I will not disobey you in {any} order.”).[13]

Deliberating concerns about upbringing and education almost never end. The problems are many and the reality is bitter, but we ask God Almighty to grant success to the righteous among His servants to achieve more benevolence and liberality in this world and humankind:

(The Beneficent. Taught the Qur’ān. Created the man. Taught him eloquence)…[14]


[1] The original article in Arabic can be accessed here for advanced readers:

[2] Amāli al-Sadūq: 724; Khasā’is al-Aimmah: 71; Sharh al-Akhbār 2: 391-392; Dhakha’ir al-‘Uqbi: 100; Al-Istibsār 3: 1107-1108; Sharh Ibn Abi al-Hadīd 1: 25, and 18: 225; Tarīkh Ibn ‘Asākir 24: 402, etc.).

The English rendition of Arabic text in al-Amāli can be read here:

[3] Mujtahid al-Mutajazzi is a term applied to a scholar who has obtained ijtihād in one or several branches of Fiqh.

In contrast, Mujtahid al-Mutlaq is a scholar who has expertise in all branches of Fiqh and is considered a source of emulation. He is called Marja’.

[4] al-Sadūq, al-Amāli 453; Al-Khisāl 567; and the book Man La Yahduruhu Al-Faqīh 621:2, and so on. The English rendition of ‘arabic text in al-Amāli can be read here:

In another version, it is mentioned as such:

وأمَّا حَقُّ رَعِيَّتِكَ بالعِلْمِ فَأَنْ تَعْلَمَ أَنَّ اللهَ قَدْ جَعَلَكَ لَهُمْ فِيمَا آتاكَ مِنَ الْعِلْمِ وَولاّكَ مِنْ خَزَانةِ الْحِكْمَةِ، فَإنْ أَحْسَنْتَ فِيمَا ولاّكَ اللهُ مِنْ ذلِكَ وَقُمْتَ بهِ لَهُمْ مَقَامَ الخَازِنِ الشَّفِيقِ النَّاصِحِ لِمَولاهُ فِي عَبيدِهِ، الصَّابرِ الْمُحْتَسِب الَّذِي إذَا رأَى ذا حَاجَةٍ أَخرَجَ لَهُ مِنَ الأَمْوَالِ الَّتِي فِي يَدَيهِ كُنْتَ رَاشِدًا، وَكُنْتَ لِذَلِكَ آمِلاً مُعْتَقِدًا وَإلاّ كُنْتَ لَهُ خَائِنًا وَلِخَلقِهِ ظَالِمًا وَلِسَلْبهِ وَعِزِّهِ مُتَعَرِّضًا

[And the right of your subjects through knowledge is that you should know that God established you over them through what He has granted you of knowledge, and the authority He has assigned you over His treasures of wisdom. If you do well in what God has given you authority over and serve as a compassionate caretaker for them, sincere to his master in the affairs of his slaves, the steadfast one seeking reward through his good deeds, who, when he sees a needy person, takes out for him from the wealth under his control – then you will be rightly guided and will be hopeful and faithful. Otherwise, you will be regarded as betraying Him, unjust to His creatures, and exposing yourself to God’s seizing His Graces and Power from you].

[5] Nahj al-Balāghah, saying 478; Khasā’is Al-Aimmah, 125; Ghurār Al-Hikam, Hadith 9650 and within it is:

“… الجاهل أن يتعلم… والعالم أن يعلم “

(The ignorant is to learn…the scholar is to know).

[6] (Al-Khisāl, 186; al-Khasā’is al-Aimmah, 105; al-Irshād, 1:227; wa Jāmi’u Bayān al-‘ilm wa Faḍila, 1:57; Tarīkh al-Baghdād, 6:376; etc.). The English rendition of ‘Arabic text in al-Khisāl can be read here:

[7] Al-Baqarah: 159

[8] Al-Mai’dah: 15

[9] Ahl-e-Imrān: 159

[10] Al-Tawbah: 128

[11] Al-Saff: 2-3

[12] Al-Baqarah: 44

[13] Al-Kahf: 66-69

[14] Al-Rahmān: 1-4