Theology for Muslim Educators – Lesson 2

This is an abridged transcript of the second lesson on Theology for Muslim Educators. If you are interested in watching the recordings of this lecture series, please visit the course page for more details (or alternatively, email to request access to the course).

Recap of Lesson 1

In summary, we discussed how knowledge was transmitted in Islamic societies through scholars, preachers, and storytellers. We also briefly discussed the change in education with the rise of modernity and the introduction of public schools and how Muslim countries have adopted these systems. We also talked about the democratization of knowledge, where information is now easily accessible through the internet. The topic then shifted to the role of Islamic schools and teachers in the current context of accessible information online.

The second lesson is about Muslim teacher and their responsibility. The focus is on lifelong learning for the Muslim teacher.

What is the Difference Between an Islamic School and a Muslim School?

A Muslim school is where most of the staff and students are Muslims, and the school provides facilities for practicing Islamic rituals such as prayer, halal food, and hijab. The goal is not to build just Muslim schools but instead Islamic schools with a clear Islamic ethos, a refined curriculum based on Islamic theology, and the ability to incorporate Islamic teachings into the education process. 

This also brings us to the role of a Muslim teacher, who is expected to have knowledge and practice of Islam, and not just be a Muslim by mere affiliation. They should lead by example and have a deep understanding of religion. The level of belief and practice can vary among Muslim teachers. Still, the goal is for them to understand their role as teachers and deeply connect with the Islamic tradition, which emphasizes learning, the transmission of knowledge, and contemplation.

A Muslim Shi’i teacher must have a sound intellect, a desire for knowledge, and a strong ethical foundation. This approach is reflected in the Shia view of how we interpret Islamic theology. For example the most important Shia Hadith book, al-Kafi begins with “The Book of the Intellect” followed by the “The Book of Knowledge” and then eventually “The Vook of Tawheed” comes. The Shia approach to religion is based on knowledge and contemplation and prioritizes ethics over scripturalism, unlike the general approach taken by Ahl al-Sunnah. The ultimate difference in approach to how religious concepts are understood defines the difference between the various Islamic sects. Hence, from a Shia perspective, the goal is that one must have a sound intellect and a desire for knowledge and come down to us to understand the reasons behind religious practices like Salah and concepts like Tawheed.

In summary, three character traits are required for a good Muslim teacher: a sound intellect, a desire for knowledge, and a strong ethical foundation.

Philosophical Principle: One Who Lacks Something Cannot Give It To Another

The philosophical principle discussed in the context of causality is called the “thing that does not possess X cannot give X to something else” (Arabic proverb فاقد الشىء لا يعطيه). The idea is that if a teacher, in this case, a Muslim teacher, does not possess the knowledge of Tarbiya, Ta’lim, and teachings of Islam and bringing those into the curriculum, then they cannot effectively impart that knowledge to someone else (their students). Thus, it is essential for Muslim teachers to constantly equip themselves with knowledge and practice to become stronger and better at their job. Education is a lifelong journey for Muslim teachers who must continuously study and practice to maintain proficiency.

Three Responsibilities of a Muslim teacher

There are three main responsibilities of a Muslim teacher:

1. Tarbiya: The teacher is responsible for the holistic upbringing of the child, including their moral and ethical development.

وَٱخْفِضْ لَهُمَا جَنَاحَ ٱلذُّلِّ مِنَ ٱلرَّحْمَةِ وَقُل رَّبِّ ٱرْحَمْهُمَا كَمَا رَبَّيَانِى صَغِيرًۭا

[17:24] And be humble with them out of mercy, and pray, “My Lord! Be merciful to them as they raised me when I was young.”

رَبَّيَانِى means raised and it implies that parents/teachers are responsible for the Tarbiya of the child.

2. Ta’lim: The teacher is responsible for imparting knowledge and wisdom to their students.

ٱقْرَأْ وَرَبُّكَ ٱلْأَكْرَمُ ٱلَّذِى عَلَّمَ بِٱلْقَلَمِ عَلَّمَ ٱلْإِنسَـٰنَ مَا لَمْ يَعْلَمْ

[96:3-5] Read, while your Lord is Most Generous. Who taught by the pen—taught humanity what they knew not.

In verse 3, it is mentioned that your Lord is the Most Generous. This is because He is doing ta’lim and the Prophet (p) also did ta’lim of his immediate audience and us, who are his followers. We are now in a position as a Mu’allim (teacher) who will do Ta’lim.

3. Ta’dib: The teacher is responsible for instilling good manners and etiquette in their students, promoting beauty and elegance in their behavior.

أدبني ربي فأحسن تأديبي

A Prophetic narration: My Lord perfected my good manners and conduct.

Additionally, the teacher is also responsible for the spiritual uplifting of their students, helping them to develop a closer connection with their faith and their beliefs. The ultimate goal is to help the child become a well-rounded individual who not only has knowledge but also acts with dignity and respect, has a strong connection with their faith and has exceptional manners.

In summary, the mindset in Islam is that Allah is at the top and has sent Messengers or Divine leaders to convey the truth to us. The basic argument for the necessity of prophecy is that Allah did not create us in vain, so He must have sent someone to guide us on how to live in this world. After prophets, educators, teachers, instructors, and scholars continue to spread the prophetic teachings to future generations. However, these individuals must take on a serious responsibility to accurately convey the message given by the Divine leaders. This is why it’s important to not teach things you are unsure of and not attribute lies to Allah, especially when it comes to influences of cultural biases which have infiltrated our religious practices.

The Hadith about seeking knowledge is a well-known tradition in both Sunni and Shia books.

طَلَبُ الْعِلْمِ فَرِيضَةٌ عَلَى كُلِّ مُسْلِمٍ

“Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim.”

It is considered an obligation for every Muslim, man or woman to seek knowledge constantly. This hadith has had a significant impact on the mindset of early Muslim generations, leading to the golden age of the Islamic civilization. However, in contemporary times, the importance of this Hadith seems to be taken for granted. It is important to remember that seeking knowledge is not limited to a specific subject and should be pursued to the best of one’s abilities. Different scholars have different interpretations of the Hadith, but the consensus is that it encourages Muslims to seek knowledge in all areas of life.

Two Elements a Muslim Teacher Needs

In order to effectively teach and impart Islamic knowledge, two components are necessary: (1) ethical character, and (2) being well-read in Islamic tradition. The former refers to having a strong moral and ethical foundation, while the latter requires a desire to learn about the Islamic religion, its history, and its scholars. This helps in becoming knowledgeable and sharp-minded in the Islamic discourse and being able to participate in discussions on contemporary issues. Many Islamic centers only focus on limited aspects of Islam, and it is important to explore a wider range of Islamic topics in order to keep our current generation engaged and informed. It is important to provide a well-rounded education to young people, as they seek to understand and connect with Islam in a meaningful way.

i) Ethical character

The importance of ethical character for teachers and the benefit of teaching is not just for students but also for the teacher themselves. According to some scholars, a teacher should want to teach because they see a benefit in it for both the children and themselves. This benefit is not financial but rather a constant self-reflection that allows the teacher to realize their own limitations and deficiencies. This is seen as important in the Hawza tradition where once you have learned a book or subject, you are required to teach it to further strengthen your knowledge and understanding.

A teacher must live as a Muslim, as much as possible and not have a part-time approach to religion. They should perform basic religious obligations, such as prayer and fasting, and avoid doing haram things. The teacher must have compassion and generosity and not have an angry or short-tempered behavior, as it does not make a good teacher. The use of harsh tactics may be necessary in some cases, such as when dealing with individuals who are far off the path, but the default behavior should be one of compassion and generosity. In this context, the earlier surahs of the Quran were meant as a warning and were harsh because the society was far off the path, but for children, a more nurturing and compassionate approach is necessary.

Shaheed Mutahhari argues that there is a difference between preventive measures and measures to grow someone in his book “Training and Education in Islam.” He believes that for growth and nourishment, a teacher should use compassion, love, and gentleness. However, for preventive measures, the teacher needs to be harsh, as the student has gone off the path and needs to be brought back to reality. The teacher must also understand that they are not only dealing with the physical body of the student, but also their soul, and the teacher must ensure that the soul grows properly and is nourished. The teacher must be strict, but not short-tempered or angry, as this will not help the student grow.

ii) Knowledge of Islamic tradition

The second component of being a successful Muslim teacher is to be well-studied in the Islamic tradition. Teachers should seek opportunities to gain a deeper knowledge of Islamic civilization, thought, sciences, and literature. They should be aware of the Islamic Sciences such as theology, logic, critical thinking, and law. It is important for teachers to understand the Islamic Sciences in depth, including the rulings and chapters such as Salah, Tahara, Zakah and Nikah etc. It is recommended that teachers read books such as “Introduction to the Islamic Sciences” by Shaheed Mutahhari to get a quick and easy overview of the Islamic Sciences. Teachers should be familiar with chapters of Fiqh, which cover various aspects of life in detail. Knowing these teachings and having a deep understanding of the Islamic tradition will give teachers a competitive edge in their role as educators.

In conclusion, consider these two ahadith that emphasize the importance of spreading knowledge and teachings of Islam, rather than just worshiping. First hadith suggests that a person who is a teacher and spreads the Hadith and ties them to the hearts of followers is better than 70,000 worshipers:

Mu‘awiya ibn ‘Ammar said: “I asked Imam Sadiq (a): “There is a man who recounts your Hadith and spreads them among people and ties them to their hearts and the hearts of your followers. Also perhaps there is a worshipper among your followers who does not narrate your Hadith. Which of these two people is better?” The Imam replied, “The one who narrates our Hadith and ties them up to the hearts of our followers is better than seventy thousand worshippers.”

The second Hadith from al-Kafi (vol. 2, pg. 175, #21) is about two men from Kufa who were arrested and asked to prove that they were not Shias. One man chose to disassociate from Imam ‘Ali (a) to save his life while the other refused and was killed. According to Imam Baqir (a), the man who disassociated had a deeper understanding of the religion and made a wise decision that would have a long-term benefit. The man who disassociated would later become a prolific narrator of Hadith and spread the teachings of Islam. As you gain a deeper understanding of the religion, you can prioritize and make better decisions, which will ultimately help you as a teacher.