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Developing thinking minds

Ikim Views


Tuesday August 4, 2009

Blind imitation is not condoned by Islam, which places paramount importance to reason and thinking, especially in matters of faith.

IN MY previous article (IKIM Views, May 29) I mentioned that education is not concerned with the number of subjects taught in schools, but rather the process of nurturing a student to be a good person, in the sense of one whose faculties have been developed during the educational process.

A student who is capable of rationalising things happening before him uses all the “tools of learning” – the phrase popularly used by Dorothy Sayers – acquired throughout his educational process.

For a Muslim student, his spirituality should also be taken care of, where his purpose of existence is made known to him, and the mission he has to fulfil in this world as the trustee and servant of God. He should know how to discern what is good from what is bad and so on.

Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, we look at the West as our benchmark, particularly when it comes to educational standards.

After all, the educational system we have today was inherited from the British albeit with several major modifications since independence.

We know today that Western educationists are themselves critical of their system. Nevertheless, their system – albeit with some weaknesses – has proven to be successful to a certain degree in comparison with us today.

As a matter of fact, most of the Nobel Laureates in scholastic achievement are from the West.

Some like Professor Abdus Salam (Physics 1979), Naguib Mahfouz (Literature 1988) and Ahmed Zewail (Chemistry 1999), to name but a few, are perhaps the exceptions, although they too were educated in the West at some point.

Even if one does not go by the standard of the Nobel Prize winners, we should be able to expect at least a few local scholars to have achieved international recognition out of a population of nearly 30 million. But this has never happened.

Perhaps the reason is partly attributed to our system, which does not promote developing the faculties of thinking.

In the Muslim world, the decline of the Muslim civilisation long before the fall of the Ottoman Empire was said to be due to the “closing of the gates of ijtihad” and the emergence of taqlid (blind imitation).

This contention has been argued extensively by many scholars with regard to its validity, pros and cons.

Whatever the case may be, the point here is that we, the Muslims, are seen in reality to be feeble minded, and not dynamic enough throughout the past many centuries, which eventually led to the decline of the Islamic civilisation.

I attended two programmes hosted by two prominent Harvard University professors, Howard Gardner and D. Quinn Mills. Both presented talks on the mind, themed Changing the Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds.

In spite of all the progress and achievements made by their country, both scholars still felt that their people had not used their minds to the fullest.

Mills, for example, argued the importance of case-study based teaching in order to stimulate discussion and creativity among students. He led a five-day seminar entitled Teaching and Case Study Method which was organised by INTAN.

What I would like to share here is that the spirit that the two scholars had mentioned over the last two weeks here in Malaysia, is already mentioned in the Quran and in the Prophetic traditions.

Sadly, our so called scholars have yet to package them and market them in a more academic and attractive form.

Terms like tafakkur, ta’aqqul, tadabbur and the like, all relate in one way or another to the mind, namely to contemplate, to ponder, to think and so on.

The importance of reason and thinking in Islam is of paramount importance, such that Islam does not condone blind imitation, especially in matters of faith.

There is not a single aspect of Islam which is mysterious, that is ambiguous, that ought to be accepted without having sound rational arguments.

I still remember how one of my teachers used to say, that “Islam is not a religion for fools” when describing the importance of thinking and the rational faculties of man.

Coming back to the programmes mentioned just now, although I learned something from the two programmes, yet I do not see much profound thought or discovery worth admiring.

The Five Minds for the Future by Gardner for example has even been criticised by Gardner’s own colleague, Mills, even before the seminar concluded.

He was of the view that one of Gardner’s “five minds”, namely the Ethical Mind, is purely based on a secular-humanistic approach. It is impractical, Mills argued.

I thought Mills had made a point; how could one have an ethical mind without having religion.

How is there an ethical standard of what is good or bad without knowing what good or bad is, which is from religion?

Gardner who admires the Darwinian theory of evolution ignored the spiritual perspective of mankind, choosing instead to use the term “existential intelligence”.

Again, as we have mentioned earlier, in spite of all the flaws in Western thought, one good thing is that it encourages discussion, the sharing of ideas, reason, rational arguments, and debate.

For the West, there are no right or wrong answers. The difference is in terms of interpretation and perspectives. Great scientists, according to them, made many mistakes but they did not repeat those same mistakes.

It would appear that we are afraid to make mistakes because we appear to be unprepared to accept and learn from the consequences of those mistakes.

Our local students, from their first day in school, are afraid to speak up for fear of making mistakes. They are timid and introverted. How, therefore, can we expect them to be creative and innovative when they arrive at the universities?

If this is how we teach our students, then we are not properly guiding them and we are not really educating them.

We are merely imparting information and data for them to memorise, without developing their ability to digest, reflect, think and transform that information into knowledge. This is not education.

To quote Albert Einstein, “the only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”

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