Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Islam and the Philosophy of Education: The Three Approaches

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_334



The term “philosophy of education” can be misleading in for understanding the Islamic philosophy of education. Even though this term is well known in educational circles today, it is by no means the case that it can be helpful in finding out the relevant contents in different cultures, including the Islamic culture. As Nicholas Burbules (2000) has aptly pointed out, the technical term “philosophy of education” referring to an academic discipline is not even common in the European countries, let alone the non-European cultures. He holds that in some of the European countries, the terms “educational theory” and “pedagogical science” are used in order to introduce the themes subsumed under the rubric of the philosophy of education. According to him, this gets even more complicated in the case of non-European cultures where the borders of intellectual development and ethical or religious development get blurred, and, thus, terms such as “philosophy of faith” or “philosophy of duty” take the role of introducing what is meant by philosophy of education.

The same difficulty that Burbules refers to is felt in dealing with the Islamic philosophy of education. No doubt something as “Islamic philosophy” appeared in the interface of Islamic civilization and the Greek philosophy which paves the ground for understanding the Islamic philosophy of education by contemplating on educational views of Muslim philosophers. However, something like anti-philosophy was developed too in reaction to so-called Islamic philosophy among Muslim thinkers such as Ghazali. While his views should no doubt be included in the Islamic philosophy of education, he explicitly avoids the rubric of “philosophy” for his views. This suggests that we should take a more comprehensive point of view in dealing with the Islamic philosophy of education than what the limited term of “philosophy” provides us with.

In what follows, three strands of thought will be introduced as the main features of interface of Islam and philosophy of education. In the first strand, “philosophy” and famous philosophers’ thoughts are explicitly avoided, and, instead, a full and exclusive embrace to Islamic scriptures is taken as the key entrance to Islamic educational views. In the second strand, philosophy is taken to be compatible with Islam as a religion, and, thus, it is held that the “Islamic philosophy of education” can be sought properly under this rubric. Finally, in the third strand, which I am going to show as preferable to the other two, philosophical methods and procedures are used in order to formulate the educational thought introduced in Islamic scriptures. It is worth noting that the difference between the third and the first strand is that while the latter avoids any philosophical thought and terminology, the former embraces philosophical methods even though there is a similarity between the two strands in dealing with the scriptures.

The First Approach: Inference from Muslim Philosophical Systems

In this approach, it is held that religion does not only contradict philosophy, but in fact there is a harmony between them because philosophy is trying to use rationality to reach the same truths that religion has introduced by revelation. In this approach, Muslim philosophers’ systems of thought are used as a basis for deducing educational points of view.

Philosophical Foundations

In this part, some examples of ontological, epistemological, and axiological views of the followers of this approach are introduced. Al-Attas (1980/1996), for instance, in discussing Islamic ontology gets close to mystical metaphysics. Therefore, in Islamic ontology, he puts God at the first level of the hierarchy that the mystics refer to as “Oneness” (ahadiyyah). At this level, God is purely absolute without being determinable in any way whatsoever. The second level of the world is called “the most sacred emanation” (faiz al-Aqdas) of God. This level being somehow limited is divided into three levels: the divine solitary level, the divine names and attributes level, and the level of subsistances (aayan sabetah). Finally, the third level of the world has two sublevels: external objects (aayan kharejiyyah) and the experimental phenomena. In terms of human nature, al-Toomi al-Sheibani (1394/1985) has relied on the Greek philosophers’ opinion that the human being is a rational animal. In his view, this philosophical definition of the human being is acceptable from Islam’s viewpoint.

As for epistemology, in this approach it is held that philosophical or rational thinking is not only compatible with the Islamic view but also this sort of thinking ranks higher in Islam. Motahari (Tabatabi and Motahari 1350/1969, Footnote p. 71), for instance, by criticizing some who hold that Quran talks about the world in a scientific and empirical way, believes that the Quran’s talk is not limited to this but also includes the philosophical and rational method and that the latter, in fact, ranks a higher level.

As for values, the proponents of the first approach have paid attention to the agreement between philosophical ideas and the Islamic viewpoint. For instance, Al-Attas (1980/1996) holds that the Aristotelian virtues are compatible with the Islamic view insofar as they can be integrated into the framework of the Islamic value system.

Educational Implications

The first approach, with regard to its belief in the possibility of agreement and union between philosophical thoughts and Islamic views, deals with a genuine Islamic “philosophy” of education. In what follows, by relying on al-Toomi al-Sheibani’s work as an example, the content of the “Islamic philosophy of education” in this approach is explored.

In the first approach, not only is it permissible to use the term “Islamic philosophy of education” but it is held that the proper way of developing it is to rely on Muslim “philosophical systems” and deduce from them implications for education. Al-Sheibani (1394/1985) by considering the literal meaning of philosophy (to love knowledge) maintains that the term “Islamic philosophy of education” is consistent. Thus, the Islamic philosophy of education, as far as it is a philosophy, possesses the main characteristics of philosophy (such as comprehensiveness, vast prospect, insight, and knowing the ways of applying knowledge) and, as far as it is concerned with education, it brings about those characteristics to the domain of education, and, finally, being Islamic, it is based on Islamic knowledge and is harmonious to the spirit of Islam.

Al-Sheibani (ibid, p. 30) holds that assuming Islam as the basis in philosophy of education does not prevent us from using other sources for compiling philosophy of education. Of course, these sources will be considered secondary and should be harmonious to the spirit of Islam. Islam and its cultural heritage are the primary sources, but in addition to them, the cultural and scientific heritage of humanity including philosophical theories and scientific findings of natural sciences and humanities (especially philosophies of education) should be used if they are in accordance with the spirit of Islam. Therefore, the Islamic philosophy of education is always evaluated by indicators such as not being paradoxical, being scientific and practical, being comprehensive in comparison with new philosophical and scientific findings, being dynamic for change and improvement, and being fitted to new findings in knowledge and religious endeavors.

The Second Approach: A Purely Religious View

The second strand in Islamic thought that relates to the themes of philosophy of education, though not to its name, takes it for granted that there is an opposition or a basic difference, to say the least, between the Islamic view and those of the ancient Greek philosophers as well as mysticism. Ghazali (1997) can be considered as a representative of this strand even though his reliance on a particular kind of mysticism makes it difficult to properly classify him into this strand. More recently, some Islamic scholars have supported this view including Ali Ahmad Madkoor (1411/1990) among others.

The Basic Lines of Thought

In relation to ontology, Ali Ahmad Madkoor (1411/1990), among others, holds that, in terms of ontology in Islam, God is the beginning and the end, namely, existence is originated from God. Then, the divine truth, in all forms and shapes of existents – tangible or rational – flows through to the lowest of them, and once again this flow returns to the divine truth that the process has been originated from. As for human nature, as part of ontology, this approach maintains that the image of the human being in Islam is essentially different from the one that philosophers represent. Madkoor (1411/1990), for instance, believes that while “nature” (physic), including human nature, in Greek concerns material things, in Islam the meaning of human “nature,” considering its literal root (tab’e: to bring about an effect), has the connotation that the human being is the creature of God.

Secondly, in terms of knowledge, relying on Ghazali, Madkoor (1411/1990) believes that what is meant by knowledge in religious terminology is to know God. This knowledge includes the sciences of nature, history, etc., only when they are based on the divine foundation. Thus, one can say that the sources of knowledge are religion and reason, while the primacy is for the former and, thus, religion determines the boundaries of rationality.

In regard to the essential or instrumental value of knowledge, Madkoor (1411/1990) holds that in Islam a mere subjective knowledge that does not influence human life and behavior is worthless. In dividing the sciences based on Islam, he puts them in two categories: the sciences related to human beings and pure sciences. He maintains that the former should be acquired by religion, and one should not rely and use non-Muslims’ findings in that area; such reliance is permissible only for pure sciences.

Finally, in the realm of values, Madkoor believes that the source of values is Islamic Shari’a, not social agreement, and since the source is definite, the Islamic values are fixed too (Madkoor 1407/1987, p. 208).

Educational Viewpoints

In the second approach, as a result of the general avoidance from philosophy and the differences held between the intellectual bases of Islam and philosophy, a different view is presented regarding education. Madkoor holds that one should not use the term “Islamic philosophy of education” because Islam is a divine religion, while philosophy is a human endeavor, and they are not compatible. He prefers the term “Islamic way of education” (p. 45). Based on Madkoor’s opinion, some of the main features of “Islamic way of education” are as follows: systematic characteristic, divinity, monotheism, universality, stability, comprehensiveness, and balance.

The Third Approach: Philosophy as a Method and Procedure

A third approach in formulating the Islamic philosophy of education is to use philosophical methods and procedures in order to organize Islamic viewpoints in accordance with the structures of philosophies of education.

There are similarities and differences between the third approach and the other two. As far as the comparison between the third and the first approaches is concerned, they are similar as both enjoy the findings of the philosophical world. In both approaches, dealing with the world of philosophy is accepted and considered favorable. Therefore, using the term “Islamic philosophy of education” is permissible in both of them. Meanwhile, there is a difference between these two. The difference is that while the first approach uses the content of other philosophies, the third approach uses merely methodological insights of other philosophies. For example, in the peripatetic Islamic philosophy a lot of the content of Aristotelian philosophy is accepted. This sort of usage of other philosophies puts an Islamic philosophical system at the risk of being amalgamated and becoming incoherent or coherent at the price of modifying Islamic conceptions to be adjusted to the target philosophical system. Even though philosophical methods and procedures are also somehow dependent on some backgrounds, their dependence is not comparable to that of philosophical thoughts or contents. For example, the dialectic methods of Plato and Hegel are used by contemporary philosophers such as H. G. Gadamer and J. Derrida, but the findings of the latter two are quite different from those of the two former philosophers. This shows that the philosophical methods and procedures have a much higher level of independence from the philosophical systems of thought.

As for the comparison between the third and the second approaches, the similarity is that they both rely on the texts that are peculiar to Islam. However, the difference is that in the second approach philosophy is completely avoided, while in the third approach there is a relation to other philosophies and they are used in a certain way, namely, in terms of methods.

A study which is done in accordance with the third approach is the two volume authored by Khosrow Bagheri Noaparast (2008, 2012). Using Frankena’s (1996) model in a progressive way, a structure is suggested for the Islamic philosophy of education including the basic concept of education as well as ontological, anthropological, epistemological, and axiological foundations and principles for guiding educational activities. A brief account of the Islamic philosophy of education according to this work is reported below.

Foundations of the Islamic Philosophy of Education

The ontological characteristics of the Islamic view are as follows:
  1. 1.

    The universe is not exclusively natural.

  2. 2.

    God is at the highest level of the universe.

  3. 3.

    The universe has a teleological characteristic oriented by God.

  4. 4.

    The biological life is only the lowest level of life being ascended to higher levels of life.

  5. 5.

    The ascending levels of life are toward God and associated with self-flourishing.

  6. 6.

    God is the basic good and the basis of goodness.

The anthropological foundations are as follows:
  1. 1.

    The human being is a unified whole comprised of the soul and the body.

  2. 2.

    The human being has an intuitive knowledge of God.

  3. 3.

    Reason can provide the human being with reliable truths.

  4. 4.

    Human agency makes it possible to talk about human actions and individual identity.

  5. 5.

    Interaction among human beings leads to collective action and identity.

  6. 6.

    There are limitations for human beings within which they acquire opportunity for action.

There are ten epistemological foundations of which the first five refer to the known and the rest refer to the knower, as follows:
  1. 1.

    Knowledge has an explorative nature.

  2. 2.

    True knowledge has a correspondence to reality.

  3. 3.

    Knowledge has different levels.

  4. 4.

    True knowledge has stability.

  5. 5.

    Knowledge has unity as well as plurality parallel to its different levels.

  6. 6.

    Creativity is involved in knowledge development.

  7. 7.

    Knowledge is a response to human needs.

  8. 8.

    There are different levels of relation between knowledge and human needs.

  9. 9.

    Knowledge has a dynamic process.

  10. 10.

    Knowledge has a conventional dimension.

Finally, the axiological characteristics are as follows:
  1. 1.

    Values have a subjective aspect in addition to the objective aspect.

  2. 2.

    There are two sorts of values: absolute and relative.

  3. 3.

    Nature has an instrumental value for humans.

  4. 4.

    The human being has a profound dignity.

  5. 5.

    The human being has a profound freedom.

  6. 6.

    Justice is the most important social value.

  7. 7.

    Justice is completed by beneficence.

  8. 8.

    Aesthetic values are partly subjective and partly objective.


Educational Implications

The final aim of Islamic education is achieving a pure life (hayat tayyebah). This aim is a comprehensive account of the ideal human life comprising the dimensions of the physical, the thought and belief, the tendency, the will, the action both individual and collective, and the aesthetic. The pure life requires health and strength in the physical dimension; truth in the thought dimension; ethical control of inclinations in the tendency dimension; a will to goodness in the will dimension; good actions in the individual realm; richness, sanctity, justice, and beneficence in the social realm; and finally the transcendence of human aesthetic taste. This aim can lead us to decide about the curriculum and what is to be taught.

As for the basic concept of education, given the human agency in the Islamic view, education in the official sense needs to be understood in terms of an asymmetrical “interaction” between the teacher and the students, as well as a symmetrical “interaction” among the students. That is to say, in any case, a student’s agency should seriously be taken into account rather than being repressed, and, thus, a student should be taken as the other side of an interaction rather than being reduced to a passive and recipient entity. This is because, according to Quran, people’s real identity is what they make by their actions (Quran, 53: 38–42).

There are some educational principles that should guide the educational interactions. These principles are derived from the three types of anthropological, epistemological, and axiological foundations mentioned above. Giving prescriptive content to these foundations will show the principles.


The Islamic philosophy of education has been introduced under different names and contents. There are at least three approaches in this regard. In the first approach, it is held that Islam does not contradict philosophy, but in fact there is a harmony between them because philosophy uses rationality to reach the same truths that religion has introduced by revelation. In this approach, Muslim philosophers’ systems of thought are used as a basis for deducing educational points of view. The second approach relates to the themes of philosophy of education but not under this name. This approach takes it for granted that there is an opposition or a basic difference between the Islamic view and philosophical views derived from the ancient Greek philosophy under the rubric of Islamic philosophy. The first approach embraces rationality by appealing to different philosophical views, but its originality in terms of Islamic views remains a real concern. On the other hand, the second approach obsessively deals with originality in terms of Islamic views but is pessimistic to philosophical thought. In the third approach, at stake is to combine the strengths of the first and the second approach, namely, rationality and originality. In formulating the Islamic philosophy of education, the third approach uses philosophical methods and procedures in order to organize Islamic viewpoints in accordance with the structures of philosophies of education.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Psychology and EducationUniversity of TehranTehranIslamic Republic of Iran