Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Individual and Community in Muslim Education

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_541


This entry surveys the writings about the relationship between individual and community in contemporary Muslim education thought. In particular, it will be concerned with the issue of personal autonomy as an educational aim. Following Douglas and Shaikh (2004), Muslim education is defined as education for Muslims which includes religious and secular subjects and education in an Islamic spirit and tradition. The primary focus will be Muslim faith schools, such as those in Britain. Underpinned by Islamic religious orientation, these schools seek to provide full time education including both the religious as well as secular (national) curriculum subjects.

The relationship between individual and community, autonomy and identity, is an extremely important matter for any collectivity, including those with a religious character. The survival of collectivity depends, at least in part, on the individuals adopting some element of shared identity and practice. At the same time, and particularly in dynamic environments, the community requires people who can show a degree of independence of mind and character to enable it find creative solutions to the challenges thrown by the environment. Individuality does not exist outside of a social milieu; social milieu remains dynamic because of individuality. Education, formal as well nonformal, is often seen as the primary means by which this balance can be struck. It will be seen below that as Muslim education operates increasingly in a global context, there is now a need to revisit the traditionally held ideas about the relationship between individual and community.

Muslim Education and the Issue of Personal Autonomy

There are more than 150 Muslim faith schools in the United Kingdom, thirteen of which are State-funded. The origins of these schools are rooted in parental and communal concerns about the preservation of tradition and safeguarding of Muslim children against what was perceived as the onslaught of a Western secular tide. This conservation goal has always been accompanied by another aim, that of socio-economic mobility through education or academic performance (Halstead 1995; Hewitt 1996; Panjwani 2012). These two aims are intertwined as they are reflected in the mission and objectives of most Muslim schools.

Notwithstanding the long tradition of faith schools in the UK, their desirability and role remains controversial (Ameen and Hassan 2013). This is particularly true of Muslim faith schools. One significant flashpoint in this ongoing debate is around personal autonomy and by implication the relationship between individual and community.

The liberal critique of Muslim schools, and faith schools generally, is that they violate the aim of nurturing personal autonomy among students by exposing them to religious instruction in powerful setting of schooling at an age when they are unable to assess religious views, thereby coercing them – through school policies and social pressure – into adopting school’s religion (BHA 2001). In some cases, only Muslim schools are signaled out as incapable of promoting personal autonomy (Levinson 1999).

The proponents of Muslims schools also acknowledge that opposing views on autonomy are a main point of contest in arguments for and against Muslim schools in Britain (Tinker 2006; Meer 2007; Shah 2012). Though some defenders of Muslim schools dismiss liberal critique about autonomy as Islamophobia (Tinker 2006), a closer look at the writings of many Muslim educators shows that autonomy does not receive a prominent place in their work. As Rissanen (2014) notes, “Many Islamic educationalists criticize the individualism of liberal education precisely because of its emphasis on the freedom of individual choice: instead of autonomy, they value the consensus of the community and respecting tradition (p. 31). Submission to the will of God and to the cumulative tradition and its guardians are thus seen as the “soul” of education (Husain and Ashraf 1979, p. 36). This can be seen in the aims of many Muslim schools. For example, the Al-Aqsa Primary School in Leicester seeks:
  • To develop the whole personality of pupils with Tauheed at the core and Islam as the main focus of their lives

  • To help children acquire a moral attitude to life through conscientious awareness and the practice of divine guidance in all their affairs and transactions (Al-Aqsa n.d.)

In the writings of the critics as well as the defenders of Muslim faith schools there is a widespread acceptance that these schools are nonautonomy supporting and provide education which does not seek to create independent minded students. Rather, their focus is seen by many to be community and tradition centered.

However, this position creates a challenge for Muslim schools because their stated goals also seek an education that prepares students for living a modern life while retaining Islamic identity (Ameli et al. 2005). Given the demands of modern life it is difficult to see how this can be done with an education that does not seek to develop autonomy. In fact, in practice Muslim schools do promote autonomy and independence of thought without which their students would not perform as well as they do. Hence, the issue is theoretical; how to reconcile, if at all, the educational aim of autonomy with Muslim tradition.

Recent Developments: Towards “Overlapping Consensus”

This challenge is now being recognized in recent writings and some Muslim educators recognize that autonomy should be an educational goal in Muslim education (Ahmed 2012; Hussain 2007; Sahin 2013). However, those who take a positive stance on personal autonomy still find it difficult to show this aim can be drawn from Muslim tradition.

One way forward is the proposal to develop “overlapping consensus” between liberal and Muslim traditions (Panjwani 2009; March 2011). Developed by the political philosopher John Rawls, the concept of “overlapping consensus” is underpinned by the recognition of the permanency of the diversity of reasonable comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines in modern democratic societies. The concept assumes that despite this diversity, people holding different highest ideals and worldviews are capable of developing agreement around aims such as peace, prosperity, and equal liberty. In the educational context, this would mean that major religious and secular traditions would be able to agree on key values such as autonomy not by an imposition by one tradition over another but by each tradition drawing the elements of consensus from its own historical and cultural roots. The concept takes all major religious and cultural traditions as plural and carriers of resources that can lead them to the acknowledgment of shared values as the common ground for co-existence. The proponents of “overlapping consensus” between Muslim and liberal educational traditions believe that it is possible to find intellectual resources within Muslim tradition to create a theory of autonomy that has authentic depth in the tradition.

The first point to note in this regard is that religions are interpretive phenomenon. They are neither static nor homogenous. Through fresh interpretation of sacred texts, authorities, and historical movements, religions remain fluid: “Although stable over time, and not subject to sudden and unexplained changes, it tends to evolve slowly in light of what, from its point of view, it sees as good and sufficient reasons” (Rawls 1993, p. 59). Through interpretation, religious community both keeps its sense of rootedness in a tradition while gradually responding to the changing circumstances around itself. This means that new concepts can be developed by drawing upon the tradition, including theological, resources. Such new concepts can facilitate a community’s engagement with its contemporary issue without feeling alienated from its past. But, for this to happen traditions must carry seeds that can germinate through interpretive exercise. It is thus worthwhile to ask whether there are any potentialities in Muslim history for such germination to be possible with respect to personal autonomy.

At the outset it is important to note that developing “overlapping consensus” is not an exercise in anachronism of searching the concept of autonomy in premodern Muslim history. Autonomy is a modern concept; “philosophical reflection on autonomy is modern” (Frank 1992, p. 1). It is not found in premodern Muslim contexts. However, to say that autonomy is a modern concept is to give it a history, to make it contingent. If it originated in the modern West, it also means that it did not exist in the premodern West. If so, there must have been conditions, material as well as intellectual, which led to the recognition of personal autonomy as a value in the modern West. In recent years, the intellectual genealogy of the concept of autonomy has received significant scholarly attention (Schneewind 1998). These work show that there were potentials in the premodern West that were actualized in the “invention of autonomy.” Kant’s invention of autonomy was based on these potentials. And, it was not the end of the story. The concept of autonomy has continued to acquire new formulations since Kant. In particular, in late twentieth century, in response to the communitarian and feminist critiques, there arose a move towards dialogical and relational models of autonomy which acknowledges that “individuals are much more deeply dependent on their social environment for the acquisition, maintenance, and exercise of their autonomy” than earlier conceptions have usually accepted (Christman and Anderson 2005, p. 13). The key point in this reconceptualization of autonomy is that socialization does not equal indoctrination. The person who grows up in a religious tradition and comes to discover his/her identity-defining commitment to that tradition may still be able to subject that commitment to critical reflection. It is now acknowledged that culture, socialization, and listening to expertise are an essential part of being autonomous. The claim, more accurately, is that an individual is then able to process the information and fashion their own path – and therefore become the author of their life, as noted by Will Kymlicka:

What is central to the liberal view is not that we can perceive a self prior to its ends, but that we understand our selves to be prior to our ends, in the sense that no end or goal is exempt from possible re-examination. …My self is, in this sense, perceived prior to its ends, i.e. I can always envisage my self without its present ends. But this does not require that I can ever perceive a self totally unencumbered by any ends…. (Kymlicka 1989, p. 52)

This recent developments in understanding autonomy already shows that the presumed gulf between liberal stress on individual and Muslim stress on community may not be as wide as it is usually assumed to be. Still, it is one thing to claim that autonomy is not necessarily inimical to valuing community and tradition, another to say that Muslim schools should have it as an educational aim. For this the ideal of autonomy needs to find some resonance in Muslim cultures. The question is: are there intellectual and cultural potentials in Muslim history that can help forge a contemporary concept of autonomy that will have authentic depth in Muslim tradition?

One indicator of the existence of such cultural potentialities in Muslim contexts is shown in many current political and societal developments in Muslim contexts that imply acceptance of personal autonomy. For example, there is a growing practice of civil society in many Muslim contexts. The lawyers’ movement in Pakistan as well as the Arab Spring are good example of such civil society activism. While it is arguable that any Muslim majority country is genuinely democratic, by voting in large numbers whenever an opportunity has risen, people have indicated their preference for democratically elected governing systems. All these practices presume personal autonomy. Their presence can be seen to indicate that personal autonomy is not in conflict with, what Braudel (1994) calls, the “structural elements” of a civilization, in this case Muslim. Braudel has argued that a civilization refuses “to accept a cultural innovation that calls in question one of its own structural elements.” If, as many proponents of Muslim schools argue, personal autonomy is incompatible with Muslim cultures, how does one explain wide acceptance of the above noted practices in these cultures? Perhaps these reflect an intuitive appeal of individuality and autonomy, made possible by cultural potentialities already present in the structural element of Muslim cultures

A reading of Muslim history is possible that shows that individual moral responsibility, freedom to make ethical choices, engage in critical reflection on one’s intellectual and social options, and belief in reason’s capacity to discern moral qualities of acts – ingredients that can serve as the basis for personal autonomy – are part of Muslim historical experience. We will briefly focus on three elements: individual moral responsibility, freewill-predestination debate, and the Intellectualist theory of ethics (Panjwani 2009).

The history of Muslims begins with Prophet Muhammad preaching his message to individuals in Makkah. Arabian society in Prophet Muhammad’s time was collectivist. The tribe was the source of honor, safety, and identity. An individual was nothing outside the tribe not only socially but often even physically because of the harsh ecological conditions (Tabari 2003). In this social context, Prophet Muhammad’s act of preaching to individuals rather than tribes collectively presupposes (on his part) that those whom he was addressing have a capacity to think for and reconstitute themselves, to make a moral choice. He spoke to individuals, expecting that listening to his message they would be able to put some distance between themselves and their social and intellectual attachments and constitutions, assessing them against his message. It is proposed here that while the society in Prophet Muhammad’s Makkah may not have had a concept of autonomy, the presence of the phenomenon (at least a form of intellectual autonomy) and its presupposition by Prophet Muhammad is hard to deny. Prophet Muhammad’s act of preaching indicates his implicit acknowledgment of individual human being’s capacity to think for him/herself in a highly tradition-directed society.

The second element is the theological debates about freedom in Muslim history. The Quran contains several verses that proclaim God’s power over universe and human affairs; it also has many verses which make humans responsible for their actions and its consequences. Over time, some people began to note possible tension between these two types of verses. God’s omnipotence cannot be denied but justice required that human beings must merit reward or punishment. This, in turn, required some way in which human acts must be owned by humans; that their acts become their acts. Freewill appeared to be an obvious candidate but was it possible in light of the necessity to accept divine omnipotence? From the eighth century there was a protracted debate about the possibility of human moral freedom in the wake of God’s power. The constraints of space will not allow me to go into details. In short, starting from the early eighth century individuals such as Hasan al-Basri (d.728) came to be associated with the position of freewill. In time a powerful theological school called Mutazillah argued for human freewill. The Mu‘tazila held that not only were human beings free to make moral choices but also that humans were capable, independent of revelation, to know what these choices were. In other words, the agent, at least in some cases, was seen as capable of knowing the moral quality of acts independent of revelation. The distinctiveness of Mu‘tazili theory was its claim that this moral quality of an action was known to an agent, the human beings, necessarily (‘ala d-darura) or by intuition. In support, it appealed not only to the rational character of human beings but also pointed to the ethical knowledge of people, Brahmins of al-Hind (India), for example, who were believed to have not received any revelation. Mu‘tazila thus adhered to ethical rationalism or intellectualist theory of ethics, a position whose dominance in early modern European intellectual life was seen by Schneewind (1998) and others as critical to the subsequent rise of autonomy in modern period. The Mu‘tazili position on knowledge of ethics was opposed by the Ash‘ari and other positions. The resulting debate was reminiscent of the discussion about the relationship between piety and deity in Plato’s Euthyphro. There was a rationalist current which took ethics to be ontologically objective and opposed voluntarist position.

For our purpose, the Mu‘tazila and Ash‘ariyya positions and the freewill debate in Muslim history generally show that the question of human moral responsibility was extensively debated. The intuitions that individuals must somehow be responsible for their acts and that ethics stand objectively apart from the subjective desires of agent (or even the divine) remained strong enough that it could not be sidelined, even if it could not be successfully reconciled with belief in divine omnipotence.


The Muslim tradition, like all religious traditions, had historically emphasized community over individual. Yet, this history also carries a deep seated respect for individual moral responsibility and freewill. Both the necessities of everyday life and requirement of justice required this. Consequently, the resolution of the antithesis [freedom and determination] that came to dominate “recognized the inescapability of affirming freedom in some sense or other” though it could also “not disavow the Koranic concept of God’s overwhelming domination and supremacy…” (Fakhry 1997, p. 19). Perhaps because of this recognition, modern Muslims in their practical lives have been able to adopt many institutions and practices that are underpinned by personal freedom. Examples ranging from democratic impulse to the adoption of child-centered education across the Muslim world indicate that, rhetoric of some proponents of Muslim education notwithstanding, in pragmatic terms personal freedom is highly valued.

The entry has showed that Muslim educators are engaged in developing new understandings of the relationship between individual and community which can lead to an “Overlapping Consensus” (Rawls 1993) between the liberal and Muslim tradition around the value of independent thinking and autonomy. This requires a reconsideration of both the liberal and Muslim tradition. Rethinking of the concept of personal autonomy in the liberal context, as noted above, has helped in recognizing that nurturing autonomy is not antithetical to initiating children into religio-cultural traditions. There are potentials in Muslim tradition that can be drawn upon to create educational theory that accepts autonomy as an educational idea. Perhaps, through such endeavors will emerge practices that increase “the volume of human autonomy, but not autonomy which, for the absence of solidarity, results in loneliness; and …[increase] the intensity of human solidarity, but not solidarity which, for the absence of autonomy, results in oppression” (Bauman 1988, p. 231).


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.UCL Institute of EducationUniversity College LondonLondonUK