4. The Importance of Education for Muslim Youth

Tobias Sahl Andersson

Director of Studies at the Muslim Faculty of Advanced Studies

At the 2012 Gathering of the EMU in Rotterdam, 18th September 2102


One of the great scholars from the early history of Islam, ‘Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak, used to say, ‘The beginning of knowledge is intention, then listening, then understanding, then action, then preservation, and then dissemination.’ (Qadi ‘Iyad, Tartib al-Madarik)

These six stages in the process of acquiring, realising and transmitting knowledge have characterised scholarly education within Islam since the time of sahaba. The individual and social responsibility for the realisation of each stage has varied according to time and context. In some historical periods, the importance of preservation was the main concern among the Muslims. In other eras, action or spreading of knowledge was emphasised. Nevertheless, it is obvious that all these stages – from the student’s intention to the teacher’s transmission – are all interrelated and cannot exist without each other.

When looking at the situation currently faced by young Muslims in quest for knowledge, it is useful to remind ourselves about the aforementioned process of transmission. Certainly, all knowledge – like all actions – begins with the individual intention. However, transmission is a reciprocal relationship, not only between the student and the teacher, but also with the community or society as a whole.

To fully grasp the importance of education for Muslims here in Europe, an examination of the state of affairs regarding these six stages will, hopefully, present us not only with why education is important, but also how that importance is to be prioritised in practical terms with respect to the educational prospects of emerging new generations. On the one hand, we have to ask ourselves the question: What are the options for young Muslims seeking knowledge today, and how are we to facilitate environments where “listening, understanding, action, preservation and dissemination” are made possible? On the other hand – as we have already observed – all knowledge begins with the intention to acquire it. Therefore, the next question is: How is the importance of education confronted by young European Muslims – like myself –who are at the beginning of the search for knowledge?

By looking at these six stages, my intention is to provide an overview of both the responsibilities and the possibilities we have – students, teachers, institutions and communities – when we face the present and future state of education in these lands. That will, insha’Allah, also highlight the importance of knowledge in itself and the importance of the approach we take to the education in these times.

I. Intention – Niyya

The Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, said, ‘Innama’l-a‘malu bi’n-niyyaat.’ Actions are only according to intentions. We could certainly dedicate the next few days to discussing the fundamental importance of sincere intentions on the side of both students and teachers when engaging in the process of transmitting knowledge. The purpose here, however, is not to repeat what classical scholars previously have said about education and intention, but rather to ask the kind of questions that might open up our understanding of what intentions are needed when facing the educational situation in present day Europe.

Beginning with myself, my intentions when I left my own country in order to seek knowledge abroad were to study Qur’an, tafsir, hadith, fiqh and all the major sciences of Islam. I was on my way to one of the Arab countries, but the political situation eventually stopped me from going and I ended up in England. Certainly a land of many Muslims, but far from what I had expected with my somewhat romantic vision of studying Islam. Nevertheless, the change of course in my journey in search of knowledge taught me a great deal about education, and hopefully, I will be able to transmit something of that to you.

Soon after arriving in England, I understood that the study of tafsir, hadith and fiqh in order to become a proper faqih or ‘alim was not for everyone. Naturally, I studied the basics I needed for my own life as a Muslim, but I also began to focus on the Arabic language primarily, as well as the history of Islam, which I studied both with my Muslim teachers in England and at one of the universities. Later I also began teaching the history of Islam in the local community and working on a project to create an institution for Muslim scholarship in Europe. In fact, all those activities, besides writing and studying on my own, became a way of putting the acquired knowledge into practice. Without realising it, my education had become a form of apprenticeship where I was not only learning through theoretical transmission from my teachers, but through practical application in the context of a living Muslim community.

There are two aspects that I want to underline with this story. One is that the education of young Muslims – if they are given responsibilities to teach and activate their acquired knowledge – is essential in the process of establishing dynamic communities. The other aspect is the necessity of a broad education not only intended to produce scholars of the traditional sciences, but within all branches of knowledge that are beneficial to the growing Muslim community in Europe and for the establishment of sound Muslim identities within it.

The “Islamic” element within the phrase “Islamic education” is not simply defined by what is taught, but by how, where and why it is taught. It is not the subjects that are “Islamic”, but rather the underlying intention, the method of transmitting knowledge and the activation of that knowledge. Therefore, it is essential that we have access to institutions and, above all, to living communities in which this process can take place. The traditional sciences have to be taught – we do need new generations of European ‘ulama – but we also need new generations of Muslims excelling in history, philosophy, literature, political science and so forth.

The intention cannot only be to create educational institutions for Muslims in Europe. It also has to be to create a culture of communities in which all types of knowledge are endorsed and transmitted as natural components of the establishment of Islam in these lands, although it certainly has to begin with the Qur’an and the classical sciences of the Deen. From my own experience, I know the importance of traditional ways of transmission at the feet of the people of knowledge and – after having looked at intention – we thereby come to the second fundamental of the educational process and the primary practice that all students are required to master: listening or in Arabic istimaa’.

II. Listening - Istimaa’

We are all aware of the fact that traditional education according to the transmitted way of Islam cannot take place in the context of a modern university lecture theatre, at least not without some complications. The medium might not wholly be the message, but it certainly affects the transmission, shaping both the giver and the receiver of its content.

It does not, however, mean that we can simplistically reject the context in which we live and the technology that surrounds us all. The vast majority of the younger generation of Muslims growing up in Europe are all, more or less, brought up within the paradigm of modern education, including universities and the technology that underpins their endeavours. This is what the Muslim youth are used to. It is a reality we have to accept, but at the same time a challenge that we have to confront. And again, only a generation of educated young Muslims – aware of their own times – will be equipped to rise to the task.

For instance, the rapid growth of online lectures, courses and other opportunities to acquire knowledge from the tradition of Islam are an everyday reality for the young generations. There is certainly not a lack of desire to listen to the scholars of Islam, whether it be in online lectures or the public speaking events that take place all over the world. The problem, however, is that it tends to become another form of entertainment and the educational process thus ends with the second stage of listening, rather than proceeding to the pursuit of more advanced understanding and practical application. Education as entertainment has proven to be beneficial to the popular spread of knowledge of Islam, but it cannot replace the deep search for knowledge that takes years and years to acquire and realise.

Here we also face the issue of technology, which, in the same way as the modern university setting, tends to objectify the knowledge, separate it from its living context and offer it without an in-depth encounter with its essential purpose and meaning. Listening implies a reciprocal relationship between the teacher and the student, where the latter initially listens and where knowledge is transmitted experientially, comparable to the relationship of master and apprentice. That is in fact the meaning of the Arabic word for education, tarbiya, the active fostering of growth. It is also the meaning of another Arabic word used for education, ta’dib, the instilling and inculcation of adab, signifying an outward and inward refinement based on the transmission of knowledge.

My personal experience from studying at both European universities and in various Muslim contexts has made me realise that the main difference between them is not necessarily the content that is taught, but rather the experiential understanding that has been provided by the Muslim teachers. In other words, the act of listening to a teacher cannot take place in a classroom where knowledge is detached from the lived reality and simply read out. If that is the case, we end up similarly to when education is turned into entertainment and the subsequent processes of understanding, application and further transmission are diverted.

It can be said that education is all about taking the student to the place of learning. It is an act of teaching the student how to seek, acquire, experience and existentially realise knowledge. If the student does not reach a state or a place of learning – where the education continues independently of the teacher – there is no access to the following stage: understanding.

III. Understanding - Fahm

When it comes to understanding, fahm in Arabic, the classic lexicographers define it as “excellence of intelligence in respect of its readiness to apprehend quickly subjects of inquiry that present themselves to it.” Several aspects of the cultivation of understanding are worth mentioning, but I intend to focus on certain areas that are sometimes forgotten.

The state of Muslim education in Europe is not a darura phenomenon. It is not a crisis that forces us to compromise with our tradition. Rather, it is a situation of challenging opportunities. Although the Western education system and its universities, arguably, have disintegrated in the last century, we must not forget the many noble aspects of its tradition and we must not simply turn away from it. If the coming ‘ulama of these lands – raised and educated in Europe – are to be able to understand the relationship between the scholarly tradition of Islam and its implementation in the modern world, then they cannot do this alone. They will need other Muslim academics who will provide a breadth of knowledge and perspectives. All scholars need a community of collaborators, from the young student at the beginning of the quest for knowledge to the elderly Shaykh at the end of it.

Certainly, every faqih who has studied the classical texts, for instance, also has to understand the time and context in which he lives. But that understanding today is in many ways an insight as to which other experts to consult in order to arrive at an appropriate and workable way of facing contemporary situations. Therefore, the traditional transmission of the classical sciences of Islam has to meet new areas of study, not in order to create a new hybrid, but in order to mutually inform each other. An obvious example from the last few decades is the importance of a dynamic relationship between the fuqaha dealing commercial issues and the economic historians, or others, who have acquired firsthand expertise in these surroundings and comprehensive grasp of the theory and practice of modern financial systems. Without mutual consultation, no understanding in the real sense of the word is achieved.

That shows the importance of young Muslims specialising in new areas of study and thereby providing a new understanding that can shape the future of Islam in Europe, whether it be history, philosophy, sociology, technology, geography or other sciences. These are all subjects that historically the scholars of Islam have excelled in, not in order to contradict the tradition, but to provide understanding of the present times and thereby facilitate the activation of the Deen. I am not talking about the employment driven studies that take place in most university programmes, but subjects that are beneficial to our understanding of the times we live in and that can lay the foundation for all further transmission and implementation.

Many young Muslims continue their studies at universities – which is all good and well – but in almost all cases there is a need for consultation how to approach the studies in such environments. If emerging generations are to attain the maximum benefit from it, then there is a need for authentic guidance and advice for Muslim youth engaged in university studies. Likewise, there is also a need to create a community of scholars – similar to a guild – in order to facilitate the guidance and training of students through constant exposure to and collaboration with experienced scholars, whether they have their background in the universities or in the traditional sciences of Islam. What it comes down to is the importance for young Muslim students to both understand the times we live in and the tradition we belong to, in order to proceed to the next of the educational stages: action or, in Arabic, ‘amal. The activation of knowledge.

IV. Action - ‘Amal

The importance of knowledge and education cannot be realised unless it results in change – that is inward self-improvement in the way one goes about things, and outward improvement in the surrounding community. That necessitates appropriate action in conformity with what is intended, transmitted and understood from the previous stages. Without any activation and realisation of the transmitted knowledge, education becomes nothing but ta’allum, mere learning by rote and information.

Almost all words in the Arabic language come from trilateral verbal roots. It is a language based on verbs, on doing and action, rooted in the dynamic reality of existence. Similarly to the life-transaction of Islam, Arabic is a language that can only be understood and realised by outward action in compliance with the inward recognition. If these are the foundations that our education is based on, it has to lead to implementation and activation.

Before continuing, however, we should avoid being too abstract in the call to action. In relation to this specific topic of education, action would basically refer to the usage and further application of the knowledge that has been transmitted. Education in Islam is not and has never been an end in itself and it has to take place in the context of civic engagement. The meaning of education for the Muslim youth of Europe cannot be appreciated without the direct application of the acquired knowledge and such opportunities are necessary to facilitate, whether it be by teaching younger students, assisting senior scholars and researchers, participating in academic administration or taking on other responsibilities within the communities in which they find themselves.

The Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, was known to give significant responsibilities to the young men of ability and good character around him. Thereby he educated and brought up the generations of sahaba and later tabi’in who spread the knowledge of Islam to all corners of the world. All of them learned by practice, keeping company and direct implementation. For instance, al-Hakim narrated that ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, radiallahu ’anhu, said:

The Messenger of Allah, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, sent me to Yemen, so I said, ‘Messenger of Allah, you have sent me, and I a youth, to judge between them, and I don’t know what the nature of judgement is.’ He struck my chest with his hand and said, ‘O Allah, guide his heart and make firm his tongue.’ (‘Ali said), By the One Who split the grain, I have not had any doubt about passing judgements (in a dispute) between two (people).

On the one hand, we see the du’a of the Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, but on the other hand, the narration indicates the sunna of giving responsibility and opportunities of learning through practical experience. According to another well known narration from the Messenger, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, he also said, ‘Act upon what you know and Allah will teach you what you do not know.’ Practice and implementation are necessary steps to further education.

One aspect of this is the collaboration of people of knowledge or what we might call the community of scholars. In the same way as the early madhahib were guilds of law, there is a need to facilitate guilds of scholars today, which in our situation concerns both those active in academia and those active in traditional sciences. Education in Islam has always been a form of apprenticeship where the student gradually acquires knowledge and gradually puts it into practice, both by transmitting the teachings to new students and by applying it in one’s own life. Therefore, education for Muslim youth is not only important for the Muslim youth, but for the teachers themselves who are in need of students to transmit their knowledge to. Similarly, it is important for the local communities to which the knowledge has to spread, and in which it has to be applied. These two aforementioned aspects are, in fact, the next two stages of the educational process that ‘Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak outlined: preservation and dissemination.

V. Preservation - Hifdh

First of all, the nature of preservation has to be properly understood. Only what changes remains and only what is renewed stays the same. Of course, I am not talking about reforming or recreating our tradition. Islam is not and can never be, by definition, in crisis or in need of reform. We, however, are in need of new generations who are ready to apply the traditional knowledge to the contemporary context. It relates to the Arabic word tajdid, literally meaning renewal, but in essence signifying the revival of the life-transaction of Islam at a societal level. Its people are known as mujaddid or in plural mujaddidun. They are the ones who activate the teachings of Islam and its life-transaction, either by their own knowledge or by seeking assistance from people of knowledge who know how to apply the preserved tradition in relation to the present times in the appropriate manner.

That is preservation. Hifhd. The root of the Arabic word hifdh carries meanings such as to protect, defend, observe, comply, be mindful, maintain, uphold; and is, of course, also used for memorisation, particularly of the Qur’an. What every hafidh of the Qur’an knows is that it constantly has to be revised, recited and applied in one’s everyday life. Likewise, every recitation of the Qur’an is a new recitation and there are always new meanings to be found in relation to one’s own life.

Similarly, educating new generations is not only important to preserve our tradition, but to keep it alive by activating its teachings in new times and places. An indication of how Islam has been preserved throughout history is how it has changed peoples and societies. For instance, Allah says that the Qur’an will be preserved until the Last Day and throughout history this has ensued by the transmission from generation to generation of new, changed Muslims reciting its words. In the same way, Islam has remained. Not by stasis, but by the fact that new people and communities have accepted, established and transmitted its tradition. The establishment, transmission and protection of knowledge cannot be by either change or preservation; it can only be by both change and preservation.

The new generations are the ones responsible for this societal change and preservation of the tradition. They are generations with all opportunities to know their own times and their own Muslim heritage, while thus being the foundation for both renewal and preservation. That is why well-considered education and living communities are important. It is also the only way of spreading the knowledge further and the only way of bringing Islam to the people of Europe. Thereby, we come to the last stage of the educational process, before it begins anew: dissemination, spreading it or, in Arabic, nashr.

VI. Dissemination - Nashr

The meaning of the root of the Arabic word nashr – Nun-Shin-Ra – is to spread out, to unfold, to open, to unroll, to propagate and the root also forms the word for resurrection (nushûr). On one hand the educational process is circular and, as the student proceeds, he will be the one teaching the following generations. However, renewal is the very heart of all sound education and therefore the process of dissemination includes the opening and unfolding of the knowledge to new people. Since we are talking about education in non-Muslim lands, the importance of spreading knowledge among the people – Muslims as well as non-Muslims – is obvious. Certainly, the most efficient way of doing this begins with education of the younger generations.

As we have seen, all the aforementioned stages are interrelated. When it comes to spreading knowledge, it is done through action but it is also a way of preserving knowledge. Similarly, spreading knowledge is important because it increases the understanding and activation when new people, from different backgrounds and traditions enter the educational process. That has always been the case throughout the history of Islam. A famous example of that was the Persians – with their particular background and tradition of learning – who excelled in the early development of the sciences of the Arabic language and became masters of Arabic grammar. Another example would, of course, be the great tradition of knowledge that developed in the Osmanli khilafa when Islam was established and allowed to prosper there for centuries. In our own time it may well be the new generations of European Muslims who will make similar contributions to the advancement of the worldwide Muslim community. This last consideration is perhaps one of the most significant aspects of education for Muslim youth in these lands.

Hence, it is our duty to give da’wa to the Europeans around. New generations of Muslims – with deep understanding about both their own tradition and the context around them – are the key to spreading the knowledge and social reality of Islam. Historically, da’wa has always been a gradual process when Muslims arrived in foreign lands. It took several centuries before the majority of the people in Iraq, Syria, and North Africa accepted Islam, but the number of Muslims gradually increased when generation after generation activated and spread the knowledge of the Deen. This process has only just begun in Europe and although we do not yet know how it will end, we know for sure that it is the new generations of educated Muslims that will take it further, insha’Allah.


After going through these six stages of knowledge , it is time to return to where it all began. If our intention is the realisation and completion of this educational process – contributing to establishing, preserving and spreading beneficial knowledge – then we all agree on its importance and its role for shaping the future of Islam in Europe. We have previously said that the importance of education is not primarily realised by what is taught, but rather why, how and where it is taught. Accordingly, we might also add by whom it is taught and by whom it is learned.

The responsibility is ours and, to conclude, I would firstly wish to express my gratitude to the EMU organisers for the privilege of being allowed to address the question of Islamic education before a gathering which includes so many pioneers in the field, whose priceless efforts began long before I was born. In that regard, I particularly wish to congratulate the Islamic University of Rotterdam on their groundbreaking achievements to date in the provision of tertiary level education for Muslims, and also for providing the ideal setting for this conference.

Secondly, it has been my privilege over the past year, by the generosity of Allah ta'ala, to have found a place amongst the scholars and students of the Muslim Faculty of Advanced Studies, where my responsibilities as Director of Studies have provided the insights and experience which for me have been a concrete proof of the effectiveness of both the theoretical perspectives and the practical suggestions I have put forward regarding the future of education for the Muslim youth of Europe.

Finally, therefore, I take this opportunity to invite you all, whether as prospective students, teachers, writers and researchers, or as senior faculty members or academic advisors, or as potential benefactors and patrons, to collaborate and work with the Muslim Faculty of Advanced Studies in order to create this community of scholars that can contribute to shaping the future of Islam in Europe.

As-salamu alaykum