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Religious Education and the Delegitimation of Knowledge PDF Print E-mail


Seyed Mahdi Sajjadi

The velocity of information production has increased at all levels, including the global. These expansions lead to the delegitimation of knowledge by equating information with knowledge or the predominance of information over knowledge. Given that this situation has caused epistemological challenges for the process of religious education, this article attempts to study the epistemological problems and challenges posed by information technology (IT) in this area.


Religion and Religious Education

Religion, commonly defined as a system of thought dealing with the supernatural, sacred, and divine realms as well as with the values, traditions, and rituals associated with such a belief or system of thought, is sometimes used interchangeably with faith or belief system.1 According to some, religion is related to the inner and intuitive aspects of human life. For example, whenever religion talks about guiding humanity, it refers to internal and intuitive (revelation and compliance) guidance. From a religious perspective, intuition is defined as an internal and interior transformation that connects people to the supreme source (God) and makes them capable of receiving religious revelation and inspiration. Thus, whenever God talks about humanity being open to guidance and about the increasing level of guidance provided, He is, in fact, talking about these internal and interior transformations, about people’s readiness to accept divine revelation and guidance.2 Of course, such thinkers as Dewey believe that religion is more related to individual experiences.3

The issue of religious education raises many ideas and theories about how we should be educated religiously, what religious education should consist of, and what religious education is. The aim and content of religious education are, in essence, the imparting of spirituality and holiness, both of which might not have neutral aspects. In the process of acquiring a religious education, students are obliged to learn about their religion and implement its beliefs and ritual practices in all fields of their lives. Religious education, therefore, possesses three aspects: religious cognition, religious belief, and religious rituals and practices. Those who are religiously educated cannot be inattentive to these three aspects, particularly when it comes to applying their religious education in their lives.4

In religious education, there are two kinds of interaction between pupils and the religious content being studied:

… those which contribute to pupils learning about religion, and those which contribute mainly to pupils learning from religion. In the former category are included instructional, conceptual, emphatic interactions (i.e., where pupils assimilate and accommodate the content as understood within its faith context) and in the later category reflective, interpretative, critical and evaluative interaction (i.e., where pupils assimilate and accommodate the content as understood within its faith context but then recontextualise and reconstruct it within their own self-understanding) for the purpose of values clarification, existential analysis, illumination of personal constructs.5

Other scholars believe that religious education contains two aspects: learning about religion and learning in religion.6 Learning about religion means to learn about religion itself and its benefits, whereas learning in religion means to learn how to perform specific religious rituals and practices. A major trend in religious education is to approach the subject from an interdisciplinary focus based on the recognition of the need for an interdisciplinary focus that integrates not only the theological disciplines but also a working of the social sciences and centered on life issues in specific contexts. 7 Some social scientists believe that religious education is something more than merely teaching and learning about varieties of spirituality or religions: “Spiritual education is schooling children explicitly to be spiritual: to pray, to fast, to take time for solitary devotions, to think of themselves as young pilgrims.”8

According to Laurent, religious education seeks to empower individuals to reach a higher level of maturity and thereby to become responsible and respectful citizens of the world, acquire religious literacy and understanding, develop their character, attain a certain degree of spiritual discipline, and act for the common good.9 Religious education should help students acquire and develop knowledge and an understanding of religion, as well as the ability to form reasoned opinions that lead to informed judgments about religious and moral issues.

Islamic Perspectives on Religious Education

Religious education has always occupied a prominent place in the writings and teachings of Muslim intellectuals and philosophers of all eras. Al-Farabi states that virtues are acquired through religious education. Religious virtues are those virtues that search for the good and follow the rational virtues, because acquiring rational virtues is the pre-requisite for acquiring moral and religious virtues.10 According to Ibn Sina, “if someone intends to make a reform in himself, he must look into the morals of the people. He must then select those characteristics that are good, and banish those which are bad. In his view, the aim of religious education is the creation of these characteristics.” 11 Al-Ghazzali considers one’s character as a fixed state in the soul.

Actions emanate from it easily and without any need for thinking. If one’s state of character is such that only praiseworthy actions emanate there from in accordance with wisdom and divine law, then it is called a “good character.” But if unbecoming actions and deeds emanate from it, then it is called a “blameworthy character.” A well-educated character emanates from true knowledge, and true knowledge, in al-Ghazzali’s view, is a knowledge of God obtained through a  religious education.12

Ibn Miskawayh writes that temper is a disposition for one’s soul that inspires one to do something without thinking and without hesitation. Morality is a subject that has been very much favored in Islam. One of the most important goals of the mission of the prophets, and specifically of Prophet Muhammad, was the cultivation of morals and the purification of souls. In his view, the aim of education is the cultivation of religious-based morality.13

Muhammad Abduh views education as being based on religion and considers all educational aspects to be arranged on religious prescriptions. For him, the aim of education is to acquire the technical knowledge of those modern sciences and technologies that have influenced human lives but, despite their importance, cannot on their own lead one to salvation. The essential goal, however, is to acquire the kind of knowledge that pays attention to the human soul, namely, knowledge that emerges from a religious base. Under the effect of scientific and technological advancement, Abduh tried to combine his own educational programs and modern secular knowledge in such a way that scientific advancement could both benefit religious education and counter the threats coming from western civilization. Thus he went to al-Azhar and tried to reform its curriculum, for:

The superiority of Islam over other religions is due to the fact that it embraces all civilizational/cultural aspects. As a result of this characteristic, Islam is not incompatible with modern cultures and civilizations. Also, the obligation of religious education is to restore basic religious principles among students or the things that were prevalent during the Prophet’s time. Understanding these fundamental Islamic principles however, requires thought and reasoning. Therefore, religious education is an intellectual and rational process.14

Hassan al-Banna propagated his views on education by establishing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. According to him, “education simply is not limited to the teaching and instruction of religious principles and teachings; rather, it is a political, social, and cultural process. He considered Muslims around the world as brothers (ikhwan) and declared such problems as race, nationality, and territory unimportant with regard to Muslims.”15

For him, education is based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah, mysticism (purifying one’s soul from impurity), politics (reforming the government and paying attention to one’s honor, generosity, and freedom in the educational process), physical education (physical health is essential to reaching Islam’s sublime targets), knowledge (obligatory for all men and women, for knowledge secures one’s material and spiritual welfare), economy (pursuing a respectable and dignified life requires the existence of various economic activities), and social thought (to correct people’s ideas and thoughts). In other words, education is a religious matter that embraces all of life’s material, spiritual, social, political, cultural, and scientific aspects.16

In his criticism of technology’s expanded hegemony over people’s lives, Seyed Ali Ashraf points to the comprehensiveness of Islamic education in comparison with other secular educational systems. He believes that one of the negative effects of emphasizing technology is that technology, due to its more performative nature, stresses the material aspects of human life and ignores the spiritual aspects, whereas Islamic education takes into account all aspects of human existence (e.g., material, spiritual, social, mental, political, and economic).17

Islam’s approach to religious education is, first and foremost, based on the conception and insight that Islam and Muslim philosophers present the world and human beings as two elements of a metaphysical discussion. These insights concerning existence, the Creator of existence, and humanity as the sole wise and insightful being all effect decisions about religious education programs. The Qur’an contains many verses inviting humanity to obey the divine orders and wisdom, among them: “This is the guidance of Allah. He gives that guidance to those of His servants He pleases” (6:88) and “Those were the (prophets) who received Allah’s guidance. Follow the guidance they received” (6:90). Numerous other verses mention the Creator’s role in directing and guiding humanity’s behavior. In the discussions about Islamic religious education, many participants acknowledge the role of the Creator’s will and intention in directing humanity.

In Islamic religious education, religion and whatever humanity receives through it are considered the foundations and bases of life. The most essential differences between the Islamic and other religious education systems are these stable and antecedent foundations. The lack of these foundations in the religious education systems of other nations causes their religious education approaches and directions to be slanted toward liberal and value-free principles, which leads to a departure from systematic religious teachings.

Religious education in Islam, however, is based completely on religious and divine values. By referring to religious texts and divine verses, Islamic theologians, interpreters, and philosophers attempt to find religious foundations for their own interpretive approaches to religious decrees and propositions. Accordingly, they argue over the necessity to preserve religion as the foundation of religious deeds, decrees, and decisions.

Under the influence of modern technological advancements, especially as regards IT and the consequent delegitimating of knowledge,18 contemporary religious/moral theories of education have tried to abolish any authoritative source and model-based principles of religious/moral education. Post-modernism is the latest movement based on this approach. In contrast, the Qur’an and the Sunnah, which Muslims consider authoritative sources and religious models, enjoy a special place in Islamic religious/moral education.

Our principal way of accomplishing the overall goal of religious education programs is to study the Qur’an and do whatever it commands us to do. In the case of Islam, all advancing movements in religious education refer back to powerful, authoritative, and authentic sources. The fact that God says “But you will not, except as Allah wills” (76:30) indicates God’s presence in our acts and decisions. In addition, “Allah enjoins them to the right and forbids them from the wrong” (16:90) indicates the presence of a powerful source in our acts and deeds. As a result, accepting moral and educational behaviors and deeds leads to the idea of paternalism (i.e., model based principles) in moral education. The Qur’an’s allusion to humanity’s obedience to Allah, His Prophet, and his Companions and Followers, as well as the guardians of people, further confirms the principle of paternalism in moral education.

Accordingly, the relationship that holds between the educators and the educated, or the teachers and the students, in the domain of religious education is a vertical and hierarchial one. This, of course, does not deny the students’ independence; rather, it is a necessity for religious and Islamic education. That is to say, the teachers assume a specific role model in the process of imparting religious education, and the students should attempt to educate themselves morally by focusing upon appropriate and suitable models (e.g., the Qur’an and the Sunnah). The fact that the Prophet is introduced as a role model of virtue emphasizes the role of models in religious education.