It may not be an exaggeration that the greatest challenge faced by Muslims all over the world is that of education. This challenge arose from a failure of the Muslim educational system in the 16th and the 17th centuries, which resulted in a historic watershed. Muslims lagged behind Europe in production of knowledge, and this ultimately led to a shift in the global balance of power. This shift took place at a time when European educational institutions were becoming powerhouses of new knowledge based on modern science. This situation soon enabled Europeans to conquer most of the known world, including almost all lands where Muslims had then lived for centuries.
The Muslim resistance to this conquest, heroic as it was in some cases, was simply doomed because there was no possibility for swords to come close to the hands which held rapid-firing weapons. The two World Wars after the conquest of the Muslim world condemned hundreds of thousands of Muslims to being slaughtered on battlefronts which were not of their own choosing. These Great Wars also produced successive generations of weapons, each being more deadly than the previous one. By the time Muslims woke up to the realities of the post-World War II situation, the entire map of the world had been redrawn.
At the heart of this reconfiguration of the world was an educational system which successfully wedded modern science with the corporate world, on the one hand, and the state, on the other. Knowledge production thus became handmaiden to the worldwide rise of the Western world led by the United States of America after World War II. Universities, research laboratories and institutions like MIT served as propellers of a new world order created through sheer force.
There is no escape from the basic realities of our times: we are now living in a world where ideas, products, social, economic, and political currents, all flow in one direction: from West to East. This tidal wave originates in the educational system of the dominant civilisation and spreads throughout the world. Compared to the powerhouses of knowledge, research, creativity, and vigour, the educational system in the Muslim world remains sluggish, drowsy, even dormant; certainly, derivative and subordinate to what comes from the West. The mushrooming of Western-style schools during the last quarter-century has made matters worse, as we now have millions of young men and women who have emerged from schools which ape the Western educational system without ever coming close to the excellence of the original.
History cannot be denied. There is no doubt that the current situation arose because the Muslim educational system was at the lowest ebb of its vitality at the time of the conquest and colonisation of the traditional lands of Islam. There is also very clear historical evidence that the resultant colonisation and the subsequent implantation of the Western educational system further uprooted the Muslim mind from its spiritual, intellectual and historical ground. It is also clear from history that the political freedom regained in the middle of the 20th century did little to relocate the Muslim intellectual landscape; instead, the new institutions modelled on the European and American systems mushroomed at ever-higher rates and continue to thrive and multiply in all 57 Muslim states which now constitute the traditional lands of Islam. These institutions teach a curriculum based on a worldview other than that of Islam, they use pedagogy which is not rooted in Islam, their content has no resonance to what great thinkers of Islam have left behind.
In order to reverse the global imbalance of production of knowledge–and consequently current military, political, economic, cultural, and social imbalance–Muslims need to revamp their educational system. This cannot be done by sprinkling Islam on thoroughly secular curricula. The entire system of education, including what is taught, how teaching takes place, and the environment in which learning takes place, has to be redesigned on the basis of a philosophy of education gleaned from the Quran and the Sunnah, the two primary sources of Islam, and anchored in solid scholarship.
This effort is not easy. It requires, first of all, a tremendous intellectual jihad which will furnish fundamental principles that can be applied to specific areas of education–from pedagogy to a curriculum design to outcomes. It also needs resources and, finally, it needs pilot institutions where the new model can be tested. Once proven to be better than the existing models, such a system of education will automatically receive warm welcome all over the world.
Given the current political, economic, and social conditions of the traditional lands of Islam, this intellectual jihad is almost impossible anywhere in the Muslim world.
There is not a single country in the world where the top leadership (in the political, social, and cultural economic strata) shows any willingness to even start thinking about this change. Rather, this stratum of the Muslim society, which makes all the important decisions, is quickly turning the Muslim world into an educational colony of the Western educational system, as scores of franchised educational institutions are popping up in these countries, which are aping American or British institutions.
There is, however, a silver lining to this gloomy scenario. A new awareness is spreading amongst Muslims living in North America and Europe which has the possibility of furnishing a new model of education, if it is pursued with vigour and critical control. There are groups of men and women (parents, homeschoolers, educators, thinkers), who have realised the power of education and the deadly consequences of the secularisation of the Muslim mind. They are keen to re-establish links with the spiritual, intellectual, social and cultural traditions of Islam and find ways to develop a new system of education which will be adequate for the challenges of our times, and train Muslim children to leadership positions in a world dominated by secularism.