Trivium, Dars-e-Nizami and Convents


The vitriolic debate between laïcité ridden reformers and religious traditionalists has intensified beyond mosques, churches and bistros into TV talk shows and live-streaming polemic. Apart from inter-civilizational discourse, the spillover effect has roiled the whole world into it, Pakistan being the latest victim. Arnold Toynbee’s 23 civilizations all have at some point concerned themselves with this age-old question of God and State. None of them have survived the tides of time and space. What did survive surprisingly was not the geographic, cultural and ethnic agency of these civilizations but their religious precepts. Christianity and Islam turned out to be victors in larger part. Arisen from the ashes of the same fire, through nurturing and destruction of centuries, we’ve finally seen these two come alive from a turbulent history of rising and fall of empires.

A novel third force which many argue evolved as a counter-orthodoxy movement against perceived clerical abuse, deteriorated into secularism in the west. With the controversial ‘95 theses’ of Martin Luther, the theocratic empire in western world began crumbling under its own weight until it succumbed to a more ‘enlightened’ secular respite. Islamic world never had this ‘sacerdotium and regnum’ divide to begin with. For centuries Muslim world had never heard or understood the concept of rendering unto Caesar, what’s Caesar’s and unto God, what’s God’s. For us, Allah has always been the creator and manager of all our affairs without an overbearing clergy to supervise. There is no precedent of such notion in theology. The complicated relationship between three has smeared world’s history since their inception. The question is, does formal education and informal indoctrination play an important role in this Huningtonion ‘Clash of Civilizations’? Has education or lack of it contributed to right-wing extremism or liberal terrorism? Is didactics of these three religions inherently flawed or portrayed to be such?

Islamic education had always been informal and entrenched in Quran and Sunnah. In early times of Prophet Muhammad ﷺreading and writing were rare qualities and formal education was not an Arabic forte. Arabs had astonishing sharp memories and they would remember long poems by heart listening to them once. In Medina, the people of the book, Jews, were learned people and were held in high esteem for that. Prophet ﷺmade it a compulsory part of Islamic faith to read and write, to the point where prisoners of war were freed in exchange for teaching Muslim kids. A deeper analysis of educational methodology of Islam reveals its meticulousness about not only the spiritual elements of human life but also worldly aspects. Issues ranging from cleanliness, environmental protection, food hygiene, inter-faith relations, and commerce cover a large portion of what is considered to be the scientific domain in modern classification of subjects.

An unprecedented intellectual activity entailed the death of Prophet ﷺwhen scribes noted literally everything Prophet ﷺ said or did (known as Hadith) not to mention Quran itself. Out of all religions, Islam is the only one with unbroken, verifiable and cross-checkable scholarly works. Mustafa Al-Azmi, Professor Emeritus at King Saud University notes in his renowned work ‘The History of Quranic Text’ that against all Carbon Dating tests Quranic scriptures are the only ones that could be traced to times of Khalifa Usman RA. This unbroken chain to Prophet ﷺhas no parallel in world history. Coins and papers still exist today that is thoroughly examined by both western and eastern experts with utmost care, ironically discovered by the orientalists themselves. The rules established for accepting narrations in Hadith studies are also relentless known as ‘Asma-ur-rijal’ likes of which do not exist anywhere else.

Post caliphate era saw a new form of intellectual growth as a natural result of its first interactions with the Roman Empire. Huge libraries and schools were established, and this Arabic scholarship went to four corners of the world with the companions of Prophet SA. It’s a miraculous fact that most revered jurists and rhetoricians were from the Arabic-speaking world. Imam Al-Ghazali RA, Imam Abu Hanifa RA, Ibn Khaldun RA they all came from non-Arabic backgrounds and yet great Islamic education system and tradition of inclusive and indiscriminate, a free scholarship enabled them to master the language better than the natives.

Grammar, rhetoric, logic in Arabic was coined predominantly by Persian part of the Islamic empire. Religious schools included physics, medicine, architecture and engineering studies making it a perfect place for a young child to develop his academic and vocational skills. On the economic and social level, pilgrimage to Mecca and five prayers a day in the mosques expedited the exchange of ideas, commodities and views on social and international issues. With the growth of empire, these madrassas stretched from Iran, Afghanistan, India to Indonesia and until Morocco in the west. Dar-e-Nizami curriculum was first inducted by Nizam ul-Mulk Tusi RA, which remains the gold standard for the religious, educational system in the subcontinent and beyond.

Modern western education prides itself for its trivium and quadrivium tradition of liberal arts. ‘Studium generale’ schools invited everyone from everywhere to join them without any fees just like its Islamic counterpart. Churches sponsored a lot of educational programs and legacy of religious influence over early European education drags on even today. Oxford university’s motto “The Lord is my light” is a biblical verse from Psalm 27.

Core subjects that form medieval European studies were grammar, logic, and rhetoric, exactly the same taught in madrassas. Along with four numerical arts called, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, these seven liberal arts made up much of European liberal arts education. Apart from music, everything is same in Madrassa system even less in some regards. In addition to Latin, the only holy language taught in western traditions, for the most part, Madrassas taught Persian with the main language of tutelage as Arabic and sometimes English also. Principles of exegesis, hermeneutics, jurisprudence, philosophy, poetry, prose, and debating were taught, and graduating standards are still excruciating and cumbersome. Even today it requires 8 years to master these courses in Dars-e-Nizam and to be called a scholar.

The importance of western religious intellectuals and clergy in the educational development of Europe was pivotal nonetheless. A guild of masters was formed by the teachers of the three most reputable universities in Europe; Salerno, Paris and Bologna. Their teachers could teach anywhere in Europe without additional qualifications, but the opposite wasn’t true. The privilege was known as ‘Jus Obique docendi”. Bologna is world’s oldest university only second to Kuraween in Fez, Morocco. Religious civilizations have a huge tradition of intellectual debate and constructive learning from each other. Before the disintegration of Ottoman empire, free movement of intellectuals from both sides played a huge role in bringing two traditions together. Modern and medieval European educational institutions have taken a lot from Madrassa curriculum argues one of the leading Islamic intellectuals Syed Farid Alattas, professor of sociology at the university of Singapore, a fact widely accepted. It is also true that if it were not for western intellectuals, some of the Islamic works would not have been preserved.

The plight of the western world started, many religious critics say, with separation of church and state. Sanguine history of religious wars shifted the public opinion against its feudal and aristocratic oppressors along with their ecclesiastical abettors. The French revolution was its culmination. Jules Ferry, French minister of public instruction in 1881, legislated free universal education for children that would be secular in nature. All religious symbols were removed from public education and attempt to proselytize became a punishable offense. Cross signs were removed from schools and curriculum would encourage ‘religious impartiality’. Many consider it is proselytizing to atheism.

A three-year child in French École maternelle (Nursery School) would only learn material sciences and technological tools to develop what is worldly and yet spiritual emptiness, a huge social problem in the western world today is never accounted for until Lycée (High school). Religions apparently do not count as an ideology like all others they read in school like socialism, capitalism and renaissance. Ironically renowned atheist scholars like Comte, Nietzsche, Marx and Spencer went to same religious schools at some point where they were accepted and educated and years later religious identities are banned from the same schools in their name. Another development is for-profit schooling and strict communal education. Education had been a labor of love service and duty for centuries under religious aegis. Informal, inclusive and voluntary education had been a long-standing tradition of human society. It was reduced to standardized secular curriculum and overloading coursework. Many children including western Muslims have now chosen to homeschool over communal schooling to prevent children from forced secularization and studies have demonstrated their excellence over communally schooled children. Many dissenters from within the western world have spoken against it e.g. Ivan Illich, Paulo Freire, etc.

With recent western onslaught on madrassas, has the secular western world forgotten Islamic contributions to the modern and medieval education of the occident or the media has intentionally fueled the fire of xenophobia for populist political gains? Today when a Swedish child learns German and French in school, reads Shakespeare, listens to Mozart and questions Foucault, is it a crime for a student in Madrassa to read Mutanabbi, Ghazali RA, and Labid RA just because the western world doesn’t like it? If trivium and quadrivium can be accepted and celebrated, why not intellectuals from madrassas be considered scholarly equals and respected? While Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens instill this hatred and derision into naive, confused and clueless youth to question religion without fairly educating them on its pluralistic history and contributions to modern education, we privileged people should ask ourselves, have we thoroughly understood our own religion and values of cross-civilizational sharing and tolerance? Shall we fall prey to our own lopsided narratives and hate mongering demagogues or we shall learn to appreciate good literature, fine conversations, and religious precepts that we have shared and endured for centuries? I rest my case with this my fellow countrymen!


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Lahore Times.

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