Developing Critical Thinking Skills through the Teaching of Islamic Law
The study of Islamic Law occupies an important place in the field of Islamic Studies. It is the field of study that takes the Muslim by the hand and shows him the path to success in this world and the next. It not only guides people in their personal lives, but it is also applicable to community life and interpersonal dealings on all levels.
The success of a teacher who assumes the task of instructing young students in this subject – whether it is at school or at the mosque – depends on the effectiveness of his style of teaching, his commitment, and his proficiency in the field. It depends also on the added benefits the teacher is able to bring to the texts being taught, drawing out subtleties in the texts, mentioning evidence and outside information, and considering and weighing various opinions.
Engaging the Legacy
Our predecessors have left us a great and enduring legacy of Islamic legal texts, which are a treasure trove of thought, knowledge, and decisions. We have these words, but we need to present the material to a new generation of students in a positive way, clarifying its subtleties, pinpointing its essence, and demonstrating its relevance and importance to contemporary Muslim life.
When the teacher presents the subject of Islamic Law within the framework of its juristic principles and its solid scholarly methodology, he imparts to his students an approach to thought that is logical, analytical, and conducive to critical thinking. This is especially true if he provides the students with some room to engage in research. The student might be required to find the evidence for a certain ruling. He might be encouraged to explore the legal implications of a certain verse of the Qur’ân or a hadîth. He might be called upon to identify the shared quality that forms the basis for the application of juristic analogy. He might be asked to determine how a certain ruling is based on the consideration of the general welfare with respect to a contemporary issue.
This approach makes the student see Islamic legal rulings as the result of a reasoned and sensible train of thought. Islamic Law becomes an enjoyable, exciting subject, one that is intellectually stimulating, because the student plays an active role in learning and understanding the legal rulings. Some of the early scholars used to say: “I might learn something from the words of others, and the sheer delight of it would keep me awake all night.”
Teachers must get their students to critically analyze the relevance of the evidence, the authenticity of a hadîth, or the aptness of a conclusion. They must afford their students the opportunity to determine the validity of an analogy or of an argument’s chain of thought. This impresses upon the students the idea that our beliefs and opinions must be formed upon solid and clear evidence. Students will take this with them and benefit from it in all aspects of their lives, basing their decisions on a critical assessment of the evidence. They will become less susceptible to superstitions and rumors, and more critical of the things that they hear.
These students will show more respect to the evidence in matters of Islamic Law, abiding by the meanings conveyed by the evidence, and acting in accordance with it. They will feel more reverence for Allah, for His Book, and for the wisdom of His Prophet’s teachings. They will have more respect for the indisputable sources of Islamic Law.
The books of Islamic Law are full of matters wherein scholars disagree. The teacher needs to stress the good that is manifested by this fact. Disagreements in matters of Islamic Law are not to be seen as conflicts, challenges, or accusations. They are, rather, a plurality of opinion within a sound intellectual context, where differences are a source of richness. Most importantly, the students learn to respect the opinions of others and appreciate their points of view. They learn to voice their criticisms and objections in a well-mannered way, and to criticize the opinions of others rather than the people who hold them.
They can learn to emulate the great jurists of the past in this – like al-Shâfi`î. One of his colleagues, Yûsuf al-Sadafî said: “I never met anyone who possessed greater powers of reason than al-Shâfi`î. I debated an issue with him on one occasion and then we departed. Later on, he met me and took me by the hand, and said: ‘Can’t we be brothers, even though we disagree on a certain issue?’”
It is good for the teacher to arrange debates between students in questions of Islamic Law wherein there is disagreement. This is an excellent way to teach them how to engage in discussions and defend their points of view with evidence. It also teaches them how to critically evaluate textual and rational evidence, by their refuting the evidence brought by the other side. It sharpens their skills in weighing opinions and in determining which one is the strongest. They learn how to convince and to be convinced.
Studying the Law in Detail
When a student delves into the particulars and subtleties of Islamic Law, he grows in reverence and awe of his faith. He sees that it neglects no opportunity for the attainment of good, and that it leaves no certain harm without warning against it. It provides a blueprint for life that is awesome and unique in its precision and clarity, which guides us by our faith and piety to success in this world and the next.
By studying the rulings in depth, the student learns to appreciate the great intellectual efforts that have been made by scholars in the field – how precisely they have defined the laws, clarified the evidence, and organized the issues, as well as how carefully they have refined concepts and referred different rulings to each other.
Another important consequence of detailed study is that it equips the student with the means to assess the extent to which the particular laws concord with the general precepts of the Law. He can see how the rulings fall together to form a harmonious reference for all matters pertaining to the individual and society, from matters of worship, to commerce, to personal law, to government, and to international policy.
When the student studies in depth, he can appreciate the difficulty of the field. He will see how rigorous a survey of the textual evidence is required, which must be followed by an assessment of the authenticity of those texts and an analysis of their meanings. He will realize how much knowledge and expertise is needed in diverse fields like hadîth, Qur’ân, the Arabic language, and logic. Not only does he need to have such a background, he also needs to have in-depth knowledge of current events and circumstances. Once a student realizes this, he will become more cautious about what he says about religious matters. He will refrain from issuing an Islamic verdict with insufficient knowledge. He will not talk glibly about matters of religion as if they were mere cultural niceties.
Abû al-Husayn al-Asadî criticizes some people of his day who were quick to give their opinions on Islamic legal matters, saying: “Any one of you will give a ruling on an issue, but if `Umar had been asked about it, he would have assembled the participants of Badr to discuss it.”
Ibn Sîrîn warned: “It is best for a man to die in ignorance than to speak about something he does not know about.”
Expanding the Knowledge Base
When the teacher is well-read, broad-based in his thinking, eager to engage in research and to investigate new developments and contemporary issues – this enthusiasm rubs off on his students. They appreciate the vitality and relevance of Islamic Law as a field of study. The see its applications for medical ethics, for economics, for the use of technology, and for other matters that affect the individual and society. This makes them cognizant of their need to expand their reading and the scope of their studies. They realize the importance of acquiring the necessary background information and looking at issues from all angles. They become more contemporary in their outlook and more aware, and this develops their overall knowledge base.
Likewise, when students understand the vital and important role played by considerations of public welfare in the development of legislation in Islamic Law, and also how the Law accommodates local traditions and customs, they learn how to be flexible in their thinking. They learn how to cope with different circumstances. They realize the importance of being current with the times, with developments in their society and in their world. This is, indeed, is what makes Islamic Law applicable to every place and time.
The student learns another valuable lesson, which is the need for Islamic Law to be developed in every era. It is not enough for a jurist to take rulings straight out of the legal works that were written in past ages. He needs to engage with those works, understand them, then assess how they apply to present circumstances and the realities of contemporary life. How often we see in the legal literature, as centuries progressed, new terms being explained and living conditions being described as the times and circumstances changed. Society in later centuries was much different than it was during the early days of Islam. This means that every jurist would write for his own time, using the terms his own people would understand. He would do so after considering and understanding the circumstances of his age and applying the legal rulings to those circumstances. Nevertheless, the basis of the Law would always remain the same – the light that illuminates the way is the same, and the evidence before the individual is the same.
The student of Islamic Law will find his studies more enjoyable when those studies can be applied to the student’s actual experience. He can refer back to the vast reservoir of knowledge that the field offers him and probe deeply for the correct ruling. he can seek the right answer from the erudite scholars who are actively investigating new issues and developments with deliberation and probity upon a sound foundation of knowledge – scholars who have expended their utmost effort to determine Allah’s ruling. In this way, the student will know not to accept conclusions that come form unqualified people or that are based on unsound scholarship, like much of what we encounter in conversation and in popular magazines.
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