Intellectualism in Higher Islamic Traditional Studies: Implications for the Curriculum

The number of faculties and universities offering Islamic traditional sciences or studies has slowly increased over the past decades. However, the Islamic community has not felt their graduates’ impact other than as teachers or religious personnel. In fact, if the criteria used to assess Islamic education is the growth of a genuine, original, and adequate Islamic thought or intellectualism, then most of these institutions have failed to provide such an education. I examine the goals and curriculum of higher Islamic education and the conditions conducive for the growth of intellectualism. I argue that poor pedagogy, which does not offer teaching methods that encourage critical and ethical thinking, contributed to the state of affairs. Further, I argue that the basic problem is the inadequate conceptualization of knowledge as regards Islamic epistemology in the curriculum and the lack of academic freedom. I assert that the issue of what knowledge is most valuable for today’s intellectual and ethical Muslims has not been resolved and that this affects the curriculum structure and, inevitably, the programs of Islamic traditional sciences. The need to reintroduce Islamic philosophy into the curriculum is one of this article’s major arguments. 


The number of institutions of higher Islamic education or faculties of Islamic studies has increased greatly, especially since most Muslim countries became independent. However, this cannot be said with respect to their quality. By higher Islamic education, I refer to higher education institutions specializing in Islamic traditional sciences or Islamic studies,1 as well as those that offer all sciences or knowledge from the Islamic perspective. I use traditional sciences to refer to those sciences based on the Prophet’s traditions and the Qur’an, and intellectual sciences to refer to the acquired (`aqliyah) sciences. Thus, I avoid such classifications as secular and religious, as well as revealed and acquired, in order to assert the Islamicity of both sciences.

The number of higher Islamic education institutions in Malaysia, with its Islamic universities and colleges, and such other parts of the Muslim world as Indonesia, with its Universiti Islam Nasional (UIN), Institut Agama Islam Negeri (IAIN), and Sekolah Tinggi Agama Islam Negeri (STAIN),2 has risen in response to the increasing demand for integrated education. Their curricula vary, but all offer a specialization in the Islamic traditional sciences or Islamic studies as their core focus. A huge number of students graduate from such institutions, in addition to those who graduate from the Middle East. As a result, one would expect to witness enlightened and dynamic societies in all spheres of human activity, such as socioeconomics, politics, and health.

Unfortunately, the reality does not live up to these expectations. Except for the few who reach the highest levels of learning and are absorbed by university departments and/or faculties of Islamic studies, the new graduates’ potential remains severely limited. For example, their achievements tend to comprise of no more than talks or sermons (in the narrowest sense of the word) about individual worship rituals (`ibadat khususiyah) dealing with what is legal (halal) and what is not (haram), bringing good and bad news about the hereafter, using Islam for political mileage, or preaching the ideals but rarely being practical or down to earth. Most of the time, these discussions focus on what the past ulama who rightly addressed the issues of their time said. However, their rulings might not be relevant today.

Nowhere did these ulama urge their followers to just repeat their thought. Very few graduates can articulate today’s pressing issues of democracy, civil society, human rights, gender, environment, non-Muslims, pluralism, language, and globalization to the extent that they can guide the masses. This failure is not only true for graduates of traditional madrasas, as asserted by Omid Safi,3 but, as indicated above, for modern Islamic higher education institutions as well. As a result, lay Muslim intellectuals and activists are “stepping into the vacuum created by the marginalization of the traditional Islamic madrasas” due to western colonization and modernity4 and the shortcomings of learning in modern higher Islamic education institutions.

Why are these graduates only good at teaching the same old stuff, at preaching or giving sermons? Why are they not practical and efficient when managing such administrative organizations as religious departments and courts? Why are they not creative and innovative even in their core business of teaching or da`wah (preaching Islam to the general public and trying to win their hearts)? As school teachers, they still employ the same old style of delivery without concern for its effectiveness. As evidence of this, many Malay adults remember learning to recite the Qur’an using the Muqaddam, a primer that is popular in the Malay archipelago for learning how to read the Arabic letters and recite Qur’anic words and sentences. They had to memorize each short chapter perfectly before moving on to the next one. Imagine having to recognize and remember each of the twenty-eight Arabic letters before learning the vowels. The method was definitely not motivating for young children.

No doubt, the Muqaddam was written by a Qur’anic teacher. However, it is not immutable like the Qur’an. During the early 1980s, I had to devise my own pedagogy to help my children learn to recognize and spell the Arabic letters and recite the Qur’an in a more effective and efficient manner. Later on, some ustaz (Qur’anic teachers) finally came out with the Iqra’ or Qiraati method, which has similarities with the method I employed and was based on almost the same pedagogical principles. I wonder what all of the Islamic traditional sciences graduates had been doing all of these years, since Munshi Abdullah, a Malay literary figure in 1810, recounted the same method. Why did the Malay community stick so religiously to the Muqaddam for over a century?

According to Fazlur Rahman, one can measure the success or failure of Islamic education by evaluating its success in nurturing the growth of a genuine, original, and adequate Islamic thought. He defines Islamic education as … not the physical or quasi-physical paraphernalia and instruments of instruction such as the books taught or the external educational structure, but what I call “Islamic intellectualism”; for to me this is the essence of higher Islamic education. It is the growth of a genuine, original and adequate Islamic thought that must provide the real criterion for judging the success or failure of an Islamic educational system.5

If we use his criterion, then we can conclude that Islamic education institutions and their teachers have failed. Many of our graduates are not critical, creative, or original in their thinking. They lack the Islamic intellectualism, or what the West considers the goal of a liberal education. Our institutions produce religious teachers, staff members for the Shari`ah courts or Islamic religious departments who can address fiqhi and Shari`ah-related issues, but who cannot articulate a lot of pressing contemporary issues. In brief, our Islamic education system has failed to bring the Islamic traditional sciences to bear on other spheres of life.

Can Muslims continue to blame the West, since they have been managing their own affairs after colonialism ended almost fifty years ago? The university is an elite system that gives birth to the leaders in all fields, such as politics, economics, sciences, health, education, and social welfare. The Muslim societies’ failure can also be attributed to the failure of its universities. I examine a few factors related to the university, particularly its higher Islamic education, that have contributed to this state of affairs and propose some changes that might solve these problems. But I believe that identifying the problems is more pressing than the solutions proposed, which are tentative.

Log in

DMC Firewall is developed by Dean Marshall Consultancy Ltd