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Revisiting Islamic Education Before Colonialism

by in Culture & Lifestyle on 6th February, 2024

The call to acquire and understand knowledge can be traced back to the times of the Prophet Muhammad when Angel Jibreel revealed unto him the word of Allah:

ٱقْرَأْ بِٱسْمِ رَبِّكَ ٱلَّذِى خَلَقَ ١

“Iqra! Bismi Rabbika Lazi Khalaq.”

“Read! In the name of your Lord who created” (Surah Al-Alaq 96:1)

This ayat alone gave the backbone to Islam’s pivotal stance in education and elevating literacy and teaching skills. Islam advocates for unity, and education is a valuable tool to practise this as declared in Quran 96:1-5.

As a Muslim woman in the education field, it has been critical for me to revisit and relearn the organic nature of Islamic education and the time it peaked: The Islamic Golden Age (8th – 16th century). I’ve noticed that the National Curriculum at KS2 labels The Islamic Golden Age as non-statutory, implying that it is not significant enough to be taught. However, I strongly believe that this era of history is incredibly relevant in understanding much of what we learn today. In an era of modernity, neocolonialism and secularism, it often becomes difficult to appreciate the successes of pre-modern education that is based on religious philosophy.

The mass colonial violence of the 19th century vigorously impacted education in the Global South by pushing a ‘modern’, Western-dominant agenda that still exists in the National Curriculum. This agenda seeks to promote secularist education, which aims to disconnect from any religious foundation, deeming it inferior. 

Polymaths such as Al-Ghazali argued that these cannot be separated because they give Muslims a foundation to practise good character. It also gives salvation for the Afterlife and complies with Sharia. He further argues that education must be holistic to be meaningful, instead of baseless exchange and memorisation of knowledge between a teacher and student, which I have observed far too many times during my time as a trainee teacher. However, teaching outside of the Western-dominant agenda is difficult due to strained opinions held by practitioners towards pre-modern education. Islamophobia in the UK also makes it incredibly difficult to propose such a methodology. I’ve therefore begun to tackle this by illuminating Muslim successes in education. It has also inspired me to rekindle my faith and fall in love with it again from a new perspective.

After exploring the topic, I’ve identified three distinct factors that contributed to the success of Islamic Education: its Qur’anic framework, mass migration of knowledge and the use of different schooling systems. These successes demonstrate how non-Western education thrived before colonial violence and the emergence of Western secularist ideas. Furthermore, this exploration of Islamic successes in education hopes to encourage other Muslim teachers to implement these strategies into their teaching methodology.

1. Islamic Education used a Qur’anic Framework

ٱقْرَأْ بِٱسْمِ رَبِّكَ ٱلَّذِى خَلَقَ ١

“Read! In the name of your Lord who created” (Surah Al-Alaq 96:1)

The education system used during the Islamic Golden Age was powered by Qur’anic principle followed by prophetic Sunnah, which framed learning around the idea of nurturing the soul. Islam’s view also incorporates and includes interdisciplinarity and learner-centred teaching, strategies which we see attempted today. What this means is that where Islam thrives in its teachings regarding education is the intention to mould an excellent personality, teaching key core assets and good morals to drive good character. Al-Ghazali also inferred through his texts that the definition of good education balances the thirst for knowledge seeking with emotional, mental and social support from teachers to create good citizens.

Hisham bin Hassan narrated from Al-Hasan, concerning the saying of Allah: O our Lord, give us good in this world, and good in the Hereafter. He said: “Knowledge and worship in this world, and Paradise in the Hereafter.”

Qur’anic scaffolding also meant that there were strong themes of morality and justice. It brings forward prevalent and important issues such as how our actions affect others and how we can use these thought processes to inform problem-solving skills. To learn is not only about memorisation but also comprehension and application of knowledge in daily life. This is a metaphor for the Qu’ran, which is a deeply enriching guide to a peaceful way of life. Because of this very strong backbone to Islamic education, there was a mutual understanding amongst scholars, polymaths, philosophers and educators of the like to nurture the soul and understand the self to create positive change in our local communities. Learning is stagnant if students are not equipped with tools to better help themselves.

These teachings can also be found in the authentic Hadith of the Prophet . One of my favourites is narrated by Abu Hurairah (May Allah be pleased with Him),

The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “The world, with all that it contains, is accursed except for the remembrance of Allah that which pleases Allah; and the religious schools and seekers of knowledge.” (Riyad as-Salihin

To me, this Hadith emphasises the importance of seeking knowledge for the sake of Allah and reminds us that remaining ignorant is akin to forgetting Him. It highlights the fact that congregating and sharing knowledge is an act of worship in and of itself. Muslims in the Golden Age valued Islamic jurisprudence and philosophy immensely. The use of Hadith and Qur’anic teachings created a foundation for understanding ‘the self’ and cultivating togetherness among teachers and pupils.

2. The Translation Movement and Migration of Knowledge

Abdullah ibn Amr reported, The Messenger of Allah said, “Whoever practises medicine without any prior knowledge of medicine will be held liable.” (Sunan Ibn Mājah 3466)

The scholars of the Islamic Golden Age were not confined to any single source of knowledge and collected information from all over the world. Education was a carefully-treated vessel, which resulted in ‘The Translation Movement’. This was a mass migration of Greek, Roman, Chinese, Persian, Indian and many other texts into Baghdad to be translated by Muslim and non-Muslim scholars into Arabic.  

The premise of this movement was based on an appreciation of knowledge beyond the Islamic realm, such as Greek philosophy and more, indicating tolerance, admiration and respect for other communities. The House of Wisdom housed an array of texts translated into Arabic, the original works of Baghdad’s scholars, and preservation of texts in their native languages such as Persian and Greek. This is in stark contrast to today’s educational landscape, where the emphasis leans heavily on Standardised English, sidelining the rich history of foreign languages as a subject and their role in preserving cultural heritage. The West experiencing a ‘Dark Age’ at this time led to Europe seeking academic trade with Muslim scholars, creating a cross-cultural exchange across Eurasia. The mutual respect and thirst for knowledge during this era contributed to the flourishing of the Muslims.

3. The inclusion of different schooling systems

During the Golden Age, Muslims did not succumb to a singular schooling system, nor did they exclude the knowledge accumulated outside of religious studies. Instead, alternative methods of learning flourished and were used regularly. Whether it was in the madrasa, homeschooling, or sitting in a library listening to scholars, learning could happen anywhere and everywhere. Foreign sciences such as astronomy, medicine, botany, mathematics, and geography thrived equally. Scholars taught scientific discoveries alongside Islamic theology and jurisprudence. It is worth noting that these madrasas did not have a standardised/single curriculum, however, they all offered classes in religious and physical sciences. The arts also flourished incredibly in the form of architecture, calligraphy, textiles, ceramics, illuminated manuscripts and so forth.

The present National Curriculum in England not only perpetuates colonial and Western Imperialist perspectives but also teaches subjects from a distinct Western bias. History and Geography are often presented through a lens of favouring the Western world, where countries of the Global South are unjustly labelled as ‘Third World’, and the History curriculum mainly focuses on the achievements of White Europeans. 

In stark contrast, Islamic Education during the Golden Age employed a broader perspective. It not only appreciated, but also challenged, criticised and built upon world philosophy and sciences, making unique contributions to knowledge available today. Many Greek ideas that were established earlier were criticised and altered by Muslim scholars. Al-Farabi, also known as ‘The Father of Islamic Neoplatonism’ is a brilliant example. He is known for expanding upon Plotinus’s idea of Neoplatonism. The metaphysics of Neoplatonism seeks to understand everything coming from a single cause. Al-Farabi altered this so that the ‘single cause’ was Allah alone. Another example is the development of Hindu-Arabic numerals that were then used in the works of polymaths such as Al-Khwarizmi, the Father of Algebra. There was no segregation between different types of knowledge either. All forms of knowledge were taught together, and there was a mutual effort to ensure that Islamic jurisprudence, philosophy, morals, and Qur’anic exegesis were integral parts of scholarly teaching.

I find it fascinating how the pre-modern schooling systems markedly differ from the availability of alternative ones today. Many alternative education institutions are often expensive or difficult to gain admission to, given they are private and therefore inaccessible to most people. Additionally, within the context of capitalism and secular democracy, these alternative systems are often seen as idealistic and challenging to engage with due to the social and academic pressures we face in our daily lives.

Practical Ways We can Implement Islamic Education Principles In Our Lives

It is evident that the National Curriculum faces difficulties in finding a balance between obtaining knowledge and seeking understanding of the ‘Self’. Achieving high grades and memorisation of facts is prioritised over interactive learning due to governmental pressures on assessment. This leads to fragmented educational experiences. Here is how we can tackle this. 

1. Take advantage of the non-statutory guidance with available resources

The Primary National Curriculum has a (very) small window in KS2 History where teachers have the option to teach the ‘Islamic Civilization in Baghdad’. Many teachers do not teach this due to low confidence in the subject or lack of school resources, but this is a great opportunity for Muslim teachers. In a KS2 classroom, the usage of visuals and artefacts can greatly enhance your teaching. Some of these are available online, such as the Metropolitan Museum for Art or the V&A. For older students, resources such as Al-Muqaddimah on YouTube are very useful in visualising the nuances of the movement of education.

2. Undertake training opportunities

To learn decoloniality is to unlearn the mass White supremacy entrenched in the National Curriculum and institutions. This can be a difficult task living in the West, but as Muslims, it can be replaced with fruitful, Islamic knowledge of scholarly works, prophethood, and the successes of Muslims in our personal development as teachers. If you can, see if your workplace offers CPD (continuous professional development) sessions regarding colonialism in education or Islamic values. Online resources such as the Yaqeen Institute are also useful tools to rekindle with Islamic values including curriculum guides that are free to access.

3. Create a safe space for curiosity

For older students, creating a safe space for discussions concerning issues like colonialism, Western imperialism etc is incredibly useful in constructing a decolonial environment in the classroom. For instance, Islamic values of tolerance, respect and kindness are labelled as ‘British’ under the guise of ‘British Values’. Such discussions will help them unlearn the “Britishness” that is claimed upon these characteristics. These spaces are also pivotal for parents to embed at home.

4. Include storytelling

Instead of mass-feeding young learners information with little context, it’s important to cultivate an inner love for Islam at a young age. Storytelling therefore is a fruitful strategy to make learning fun. Children may struggle with retaining large amounts of information when presented in a monotone manner, both orally or written. Storytelling behaves as a reflective tool that provides children and young learners with an entertaining scope into new teachings that might have previously been difficult to grasp.

“So relate the stories, perhaps they may reflect. ”(Surah Al-A’raaf 7:176)

As a teacher, I am confident in the framework of Islamic education and firmly believe in its potential to alter our relationship with learning. I also understand the difficulties we face in implementing these due to secular pressures and dominant, “British” values. While it proves to be difficult to execute an Islamic ethos in Western-secular schooling, there are ways to pivot around this issue to promote a degree of Islamic values and philosophy in the space of education. Practices as small as class collaboration, mutual respect and togetherness elevate the values of Islamic education in mainstream schools. I would also highly suggest that teachers immerse themselves in research that argues for this case should they be challenged by peers. Oftentimes, we may need to provide evidence to support our argument. This is an effective way of doing so. As Muslims, it is crucial for us to continue to learn, adapt and include these teachings to promote a healthy relationship with education, encourage unity, and positive change in our intercultural communities. We should always strive to acquire knowledge and understand its undeniable value to fulfil the call of Allah, our duties as Muslims and practise the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad .


Al-Andalusi, A.A. (2017). The Structure of Scientific Productivity in Islamic Civilization: Orientalists’ Fables. Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research. 

Al-Attas, S. M. N. (1993). Islam and Secularism. Kuala Lumpur: Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization

Elshinawy, M. (2022). The Unique Storytelling Style of the Qur’an. Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research.

Makdisi, G. (1981). The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West. Edinburgh University Press.

Malik, F. (2019). All That We Lost: the Colonized Mind and the Decline of the Islamic Education System. Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research.

Ullah, S. and Abid, M. (2019). Article Journal of Education and Educational Development Al-Ghazali’s Aims and Objectives of Islamic Education.

The Met – Islamic Art Resources

Museum of British Colonialism – Resources

V&A Museum – Teachers Resources for Primary Schools (Maths and Islamic Art Design)

Muslim Museum

The Met – Art of The Islamic World K-12 Resource Guide

Aga Khan Gallery

Islamic History – Islamic Golden Age Resources and Information

Yaqeen Institute Curriculum Resources

Noor Academy – Islamic Values for Youngsters

(Ideal for teachers) – History of Libraries in The Islamic World, A Visual Guide

Bayt Al-Fann (visual resource) – Libraries in the Islamic Golden Age

Iqra Babar

Iqra Babar

My name is Iqra Babar and I’m an Autistic Muslim Pakistani woman with ADHD. I’m a digital artist and advocate and I’m currently studying to become a Primary School teacher at university. Some of my interests include superheroes, comics, anime & manga and anything fantasy related! Twitter: @iqradraws IG: @iqradraws