Islamic Education: An Evolving Practice through Time and Geography

It was the third year of my Ph.D. when I was conversing with a Hui Muslim from China about my research in comparative contemporary Islamic education and their immediate reaction was, “Are there different types of Islamic education?” While it is true that “tawheed” (acknowledging God’s existence and unity) is always at the core of an Islamic way of learning and teaching, the straight answer to this inquiry – considering the immense cultural, historical, and geographical variation among Muslims – is “Yes!” 

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The concept of education itself is a continually evolving process in accordance with the immediate needs of our societies making it a natural outcome that each faith-based school system has its own definition, practice, and goal of how teaching and learning should be conducted; and that is not a new phenomenon. Even during the Islamic classical era, there were a diversity of approaches to prioritize. Starting in the 9th century through the 14th, scholars such as Ibn Sahnun, al-Jahiz, Ikhwan al-Safa, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, al-Qabisi, Miskawayh, al-Ghazali, al-Zarnuji, Ibn Khaldun, and Ibn Jama‘ah in parts of the world spanning from North Africa to Central Asia produced various discussions on how education should be implemented within an Islamic context. In their perspectives, “Islam was viewed not as a discipline of religious beliefs and theology, but as a set of ideas, ideals, and ethics that encompass all aspects of human life” (Al-Sharaf, 2013, p. 278). They relied on transmitted hadith and the Quran. They were preoccupied with things such as teacher conduct, etiquette for learning and teaching of the religion, relevance of other sciences, and the rules for production and transmission of scholarship with a shared objective of how a Muslim should learn without deviating from Islam (Cook, 2010). It can be difficult to argue whether these scholars’ opinions represented a coherent “Islamic” educational theory both because of the large time span they covered and the different geographical regions they came from. Each produced a text based on what they deemed significant and/or necessary in their societies at the time to form a way of learning. None of them were trained in pedagogy as we think of it today, yet as Cook (2010) asserts, what they established affected the future of Islamic education.

At the base of their approach was that God and knowledge are interrelated. Hence, learning should lead one to God and strengthen their faith in Islam. This would make it a necessity for members of the Muslim society to be accustomed to Islamic thinking and living for its perpetuation. However, starting with the modern era, concerns of an Islamic way of learning and teaching has been taken over by an anxiety to adjust to the needs of contemporary times. Colonization of several majority Muslim countries, modernization harmfully being interpreted as Westernization, separation of sciences now as secular subjects (despite having already been taught prior to the modern era), spread of socialist movements, and introduction of public schooling have all together added a new dimension to the concept of education in the Muslim world. In this new era, aims of schooling center the transitioning of Islamic societies from more of a conventional one to a modern model where “critical and scientific thinking” is valued (Rohman, 2017, p. 163). However, this new approach has had its consequences. As Rahman (1998) argues, the outcome of modernization attempts has only created a paradox to modernity where the focus has been on re-construction of an Islamic philosophy from the past instead of focusing on the future.

Neither education nor religious education consists solely of kuttab/maktab or madrasas any longer. There are Quranic schools, weekend schools, homeschooling, school subjects dedicated to instruction of religion only, private K-12, public vocational schools, and higher education institutions all representing different forms of Islamic schooling practices across the Muslim world. Some of them strictly emphasize religious subjects, while some have added on sciences (as secular subjects) segregated from each other, with some others attempting to have an approach similar to medieval times where learning happens in accordance with an Islamic focus. Islamic texts and its teachings compose a unique foundation for all of these categories defined by the educational needs of the Muslim ummah (Shah, 2014).

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Overall, Islamic way of learning and teaching is a complex phenomenon that keeps ramifying both at the K-12 and post-secondary level to respond to the needs of communities, wider societies, eras, national values, modernization efforts, and globalization trends. This is due to the simple fact that every society is unique in its structure, historical advancement, and their relations with the rest of the world. As a result, Islamic schooling which may work in the United States will have to go through several adjustments and changes to be implemented in German, British, Turkish, Nigerian, Indonesian, etc. contexts or what was successfully practiced four decades ago will need to be re-formed now. Regardless, such an education is generally deemed necessary either by the state, by communities, or by individuals as the venue for a Muslim identity to be formed. The shared goal is a strengthened way of seeing oneself and the world built around them by a theoretical approach that was articulated as per the distinctive societal contexts from which individuals came. Accordingly, despite having common aims and objectives (e.g., perpetuation of Islam and preventing deviation from God) at the core, Islamic education in practice differs from one community, region, society, and nation to the other. We should be mindful of this notion for their fair evaluation along with their associated Muslim societies to be examined better.


Al-Sharaf, A. (2013). Developing Scientific Thinking Methods and Applications in Islamic Education. Education, 133(3), 272–282.

Cook, B. J. (2010). Introduction. In B. J. Cook (Ed.), Classical Islamic foundations of educational thought (pp. ix-xxxiv). USA: Brigham Young University Press.

Rahman, F. (1998). Islam and modernity. In Kurzman, C. (Ed.) Liberal Islam: A sourcebook (304-318). New York: Oxford University Press.

Rohman, M. Q. (2017). Modernization of Islamic education according to Abdullah Nashih Ulwan. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, 125, 163-167.  

Shah, S. (2014). Islamic education and the UK Muslims: Options and expectations in a context of multi-locationality. Studies in Philosophy & Education, 33(3), 233-249.   

About the author

Derya Doğan is a double-major Ph.D. candidate in Education Policy Studies as well as Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University - Bloomington. Her research focuses on citizenship education along with contemporary Islamic education practices through the lens of comparative religious K-12 and international Islamic universities.