Plato’s Academy, the Prophet’s Mosque, and the Future of Islamic Education
After Socrates’ death, Plato founded the Academy in ~387 BC. It is interesting that Socrates did not found a school or write any books himself – perhaps he saw himself as a perpetual learner that wanted to devote his life to questions rather than answers. In any case, Plato’s Academy was built on a site in Athens named after Academus, a hero in Greek mythology known for saving Athens from Sparta.
The Academy was quite “progressive” in its day: although its attendees were mainly upper-class men, it was open to the general public, women were known to have studied with Plato, and there were no membership fees. The school did not even have a curriculum, teachers, or students in the conventional sense – it was more like a place for discussion between senior and junior members. Plato would pose problems to be studied and solved by others in a dialectical manner.
Education today is moving toward interdisciplinary group problem-solving, because information and skills can be found and developed online. The focus today is learning how to learn, think critically, communicate, and combine different skillsets to solve complex problems. For too long, modern education has been compartmentalized by grade and subject, and ethics has been a secondary or tertiary concern (if that). Public schools are like their own ecosystem, disconnected from the community at large. This was probably done to protect students from potential predators, but predators today can connect with children online; and there are endless scandals involving teachers and their students, or even abuse and bullying between students themselves. The cost of disconnecting students from society for 14 years is that they are sectioned off from reality and its challenges. Students graduate not knowing much about jobs, bills, taxes, property, health, cooking, relationships, or friendships; and many go through a phase of arrested development as adults.
The Prophet’s Mosque in Medina was not just a place of prayer. It had a shelter (ṣuffah), it was a place for diplomacy (such as with the priests of Najran), marriages were arranged there, poetry was recited, the Quran was taught, and court proceedings occurred.
To me, an ideal school would be a space that combines the best of the Academy, the modern education system, and the Mosque in Medina. The Academy was not run by the Athenian fish market, it was run by people who took ideas seriously; people who loved wisdom (the literal meaning of philosophy). It was a public place for casual and intellectual discussions and debates, and it did not exist solely or primarily for commercial interests. Education should also never be elitist – as we can see in higher education today, arrogance can spoil knowledge and destroy the desire to learn. The Prophet (s) said, “wisdom is the lost belonging of the believer: wherever he finds it, it is rightfully his.” It is an obligation for every believing man and woman to seek knowledge. Knowledge is an inheritance that is billions of years old; we will carry it for a prescribed time, and then we must bequeath it. What the modern education system gets right is its ability to get students to commit to routines, schedules, deadlines, and orderly conduct; the standardized nature of its curricula, as well as the ability to assess student performance through a myriad of differentiated evaluations. Public education brought the literacy and knowledge level of society up as a whole, but it often fails to accommodate both high-achieving children and children with learning and behavioural challenges. Finally, what we can learn from the Prophet’s Mosque is that it was the nucleus of his society. Everyone was welcome, shared interests were met, and a community was cultivated forevermore.
The ideal school can be like a community centre, where students can potentially work, volunteer, stay after class, and have supervised interactions with society at large. It would also be a place for prayer, learning, sport, and leisure. It could even be a type of townhall where debates about the soul of society occur. This would allow students to have colleagues of different age groups, expose them to real-life learning scenarios, make them part of the wider community (and not just the student body), and reconnect adolescents with adults.
After all, adolescence as a concept is a product of 19th century Industrial Revolution Europe, and thinning the line between adolescence and adulthood has its benefits, such as reducing arrested development, reducing the tomfoolery and (potentially) the gang activity of adolescent boys, increasing society’s consumer activity and overall economic productivity, and perhaps even bringing demographic balance. Young adults today are gradually staying longer in school well into their 20s and even 30s, which affectively delays adulthood and pushes the average age of marriage and career later and later. The consequence of this is fewer marriages, fewer children, more fornication and adultery (yes, the by-product of late marriage as a societal norm is zina among adolescents and young adults), and more young adults relying on their parents, their campuses, and the state for their basic needs. Currently, modern Western societies rely on a steady flow of immigrants to bring them demographic balance, not realizing that young adults should probably not be spending the best years of their health and fertility on writing essays, working at entry-level positions, and paying off student debts.
This model would still salvage the old model: students can choose whether or not they would like to work in their adolescence, they can still pursue post-secondary education in their adulthood, and there is no coercion to marry young. It would, however, provide them with the experience, connections, skills, and options that would prevent them from falling through the cracks.
Education must be Islamized. Curriculum designers and teachers need to put an effort into integrating ethics, Muslim history, Muslim art, Quranic verses, and hadith in every class. There are limits to this integration, but that limit is never zero. Secular humanism separates religion from education. The Christian justification for this is, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). But Islam is so much more than just going to the mosque on Friday and holding a few spiritual beliefs – it is a way of life that is reinforced in everyday actions. In schools all over the Muslim world, religion classes have been compartmentalized to one or two subjects, while the rest of the subjects do not reinforce morality. We often wonder why so many Muslims are turning to secular worldviews, and it is because these worldviews have a practical monopoly on education. One amateur sermon per week (at best) is not enough to give Muslims a framework of any kind. The Quran should not just be opened up for baraka and liturgical purposes.
Schools must not only be a place where skills are taught. They should be a place where we are made into better human beings. Utility must serve morality. Every class must teach a moral message and have a clear moral direction. The biggest problem in the Muslim world is corruption and dishonesty. Cheating is also rampant in our schools. We should look to uplift and not just repeat the cycle of mediocrity. A graduate must at least be conscious of right and wrong.
In general, we must stress the Muslim obligation for the acquiescence of knowledge. We are not afraid of truly presuppositionless knowledge. But without an Islamic educational framework, we’ll continue to buy into the dominant narratives and their promises of prosperity. We did better without them.
 Amali of Shaykh al-Tusi, pp. 625, also Sunan al-Tirmidhi, 2687.