Free speech and education in the Arab and Islamic world

The curriculum of metaphysics

Integrating free speech in education in the Arab world entails renewing scholarly interest in Islamic studies of metaphysics, and not necessarily, as is often the case, through recourse to Western philosophical discourses. Revisiting this often-overlooked Islamic intellectual tradition becomes essential to the advancement of free speech; more specifically, a contingency-based approach reduces the risk of uncritical and dogmatic educational practices.

This article asks the following questions: Has the loss of metaphysics in the curriculum influenced the decline or demise of free speech? How can understanding contingency help religious literacy and education in the Arab world encourage inclusivity and freedom of expression? I argue that the literacy of contingency is essential to a curriculum of metaphysics and a precondition for free speech because it contributes to the dissemination of knowledge as informed by an understanding of sociocultural challenges and how communities respond to those challenges over time.

The curriculum of metaphysics and the role of contingency in medieval Islam

There is a crisis of metaphysics within the educational system in the Muslim/Arab world that impedes free speech. Metaphysics, one of the five dominant branches of philosophy, is preoccupied with representations of reality, addressing questions about the essence, substance, and origin of the universe, issues of time and destiny, and God’s existence. The study of metaphysics was once the foundation of liberal arts within the Islamic educational tradition. As William Walsh (1963) puts it, metaphysicians refuse to ‘accept appearances at their face value’ and instead challenge normalised narratives ‘by revealing the truth about things, which is very different from what is commonly thought.’ Therefore, their main task is to conceptualise knowledge through the literacy of contingency, the readiness to engage in hypothetical and unseen circumstances as part and parcel of the process of our understanding of text and reality. This conceptualisation is relevant to free speech because contingency provokes ambivalence and serves to negate dogmatism and homogeneity.

The implementation of a metaphysics-oriented curriculum entails a revisiting of the medieval Islamic intellectual tradition. Notably, there is more to the exploration of the key medieval figures of the Islamic Golden Age than meets the historical eye. Instead of initiating serious moves to restructure the educational system by pragmatically adopting the Islamic intellectual tradition attributed to medieval scholars, educational systems in the Muslim world have largely relegated those scholars to figureheads used to motivate ethnic or religious pride, and their scholarship to exhibitions or survey books. Moreover, such use of these scholars, their names, and their works in buildings and institutions tends to both literally and figuratively petrify scholarship.

Ninth-century Arab philosopher Al-Kindi attempted to reconcile Islamic theology with Aristotelian metaphysics, an enterprise that tenth-century Muslim philosopher Al-Farabi developed further. If Al-Kindi was known as the first Arab philosopher and Al-Farabi as the second master, then Avicenna is the pioneer of Islamic applied metaphysics. For instance, in The Metaphysics of the Healing, Avicenna explored the terms necessity, impossibility and contingency as modalities from which to examine the attributes of the divine and the determinants of existence. Contingent beings are conditioned by their association with causes. Necessary beings or states exist by virtue of sufficient reason or a permanent cause usually unaffected by time and are therefore not subject to a contingent state. This distinction is important to the Islamic tradition because it allowed Avicenna to distinguish between God as the unmoved Mover and a caused world whose reality is marked by duality; thus, he partly succeeded in establishing common grounds between Aristotelianism and Islamic theology. Contingency is, therefore, predicated on causality, which in itself is subject to time and mutability. From an educational perspective, it is important to recognise that all that is necessary exists only because it retained and sustained a cause that prevented it from relapsing into contingency. These causes thus tend to erode or resurface to determine the state of necessity in subjects and objects over time. When determining causes dissipate, the essence of reality is subject to change. Likewise, textual and scriptural interpretation has been determined, at least in part, by causes that might have eroded over time so that the initial verdict is later subject to contingency.

The Islamic intellectual tradition and the crisis of curriculum

Madrassas are landmarks of Islamic training, philosophy, and education that have played key parts in the advancement of Islamic thought and its development among Muslim groups around the world. In Medieval times, Muslim scholars enjoyed the privilege of encountering and contributing to the Hellenistic intellectual tradition. The Abbasid Period (750-1258), for example, witnessed the progress of free thought and facilitated developments in science, philosophy, mathematics, and medicine, triggered by its encounter with Greek thought. One such offspring of the Golden Age of Islam was Kalam, an Islamic medieval philosophical school that advocated rational discourse to understand theological and metaphysical principles. A more specific example from this period is the debate over whether a grave sinner should be considered a believer, a question that has ultimately influenced the destructive mentality of extremists such as ISIS.

The initiation of the Mu’tazilite movement by Wasil Ibn Ata (d. 748) is one instance of such contingency in practice. At one particular gathering, he held the view that sinners count as neither ‘believers’ nor as ‘non-believers,’ but occupy an ‘intermediate position’ (see Adamson) This view is an instance of contingency because the controversy over condemning a grave sinner lacks a concrete cause. Wasil’s notion of intermediacy paved the way for later scholars who were greatly influenced by a similar move towards a rhetoric of moderation. Khaled Abou El Fadl, for instance, laments the absence of contingency, arguing that scholars used to recognise the unforeseen and the circumstantial when making a judgment: ‘The ultimate and unwavering value in the relationship between human beings and God is summarised in the Islamic statement, “And God knows best,”’ which previous generations often used as a concluding statement. In effect, without engaging in contingency, the voice of authority/expertise will be usurped by a despotic and restrictive temperament. Thus, engaging the modality of contingency as a dialogical forum ensures that the public sphere remains contentious and has enough philosophical substance to resist hegemonic monopoly.

Another example from the Islamic tradition that comes to mind is the School of Ahl-Al-Ra’y. Al- is Arabic for ‘the.’ Ahl is Arabic for ‘people of.’ Ra’y means ‘common sense’ or ‘rational discretion.’ Basically, the school’s name literally means ‘the people of discretion or educated opinion.’ The aim of the school, which won ascendancy in the early Islamic intellectual landscape, was to determine the proper and applicable source of authority to conceptualise and then establish a hukm(legal decision), especially when no direct hukm can be taken directly from the Quran or the Prophet’s practices. More specifically, the school rose as a response to the epistemic challenge of what determines a legal decision in the absence of direct textual evidence or a well-documented and almost identical precedent. It might not be a stretch here to surmise that Ahl-Al-Ra’y was the product of this intercultural encounter between the Islamic intellectual tradition and the emerging geopolitical contingency that accompanied the expansion of the Islamic civilisation. In the absence of direct textual evidence, Ahl-Al-Ra’y considered scholarly authority an equally valid approach to unprecedented incidents, particularly within the new expanding regions that were forging their own understanding of Islam given their own peculiar circumstances, a phenomenon that we now associate with Muslims in diaspora. That said, both schools arose in part as responses to arbitrary cases of indeterminacy and thus strove to implement means of verifying and ensuring the validity and accuracy of a hukm. The school implemented analytical reasoning and analogy to resolve controversial issues and mitigate conflicting realities.

From an educational perspective, such disposition towards knowledge generates a curriculum informed by deliberation and serves a pluralistic, dialogical pedagogy. Indeed, Abu Hanifa Nu’man (699-767), one of the founders of Ahl Al-Ra’y, advocated for common sense and analogical reasoning. He engaged in speculative thinking because of the large number of different cases he encountered. The point of Ahl-Al-Ra’y is to negate strict, unexamined opinions that take no consideration of life in flux and, instead, to encourage rationalised and plausible interpretations of the scripture that examine causes and purposes and acknowledge that there is always a variable within the equation that may lead to different results. In effect, reinterpretation or modification of a legal text is a recurrent possibility, which brings us back to the main question: To what extent does the educational system in the Islamic world echo the intellectual practices of Ahl-Al-Ra’y?

The absence of a curriculum of metaphysics produces demagogues rather than scholars who are well trained in models of reasoning. A demagogue believes that he/she has the only correct, already determined answer, whereas a metaphysician is conscious of his/her fallibility and the existence of a geopolitical variable. An impoverishment of metaphysics reduces critical literacy to a pedagogy of rote learning and regurgitation, deprived of the philosophical principle of contingency. Such impoverishment can be partly attributed to the relatively poor ranking of higher education institutions in the Arab and Islamic world. The absence of high-quality, research-oriented theological education in the Islamic world undermines Muslim scholars’ ability to address modern problems or confront highly controversial issues. For instance, under the implementation of an outdated Western assessment model, when I was a high school student in Iraq, if I did very well in grade 12, I would be allowed to apply to medical schools. If my average was a B+ or so, then I could apply to engineering programs or, for example, the College of Pharmacy. If my grades were only satisfactory, then I could apply for Sharia Colleges or vocational and training programs. Under this system of assessment, religious studies are generally regarded as less rigorous and less intellectually stimulating programs of study than the other aforementioned programs; indeed, the general perception is that if a student can afford it, he/she would be better off applying to private universities, which are increasing rapidly in the Arab world.

The result is a massive decline in the quality of religious studies graduates in this system. The public often dismisses religious studies programs and their students because of the common perception that students who apply to these programs do not generally possess the intellectual skills or the charismatic personalities usually associated with public intellectuals in society. These students are not recognised as trained in sociopolitical issues such as citizenship and leadership, innovative thinking, or modern philosophical debates, and are thus not perceived as able to address the problems or conditions of forced immigration, diversity, and diaspora. They also struggle to defend the Islamic epistemological position against institutional attacks or engage in metaphysical issues such as causation and new atheism, among other voices infiltrating the public space.

Within that purview of contingency, the subject of literacy, knowledge, and representation can be negotiated and incorporated into religious literacy to contest the unappealing and uninformed approaches to contemporary issues that have prevailed in much of the Muslim world. In this sense, the importance of contingency is its ability to counteract dogmatic rhetoric and anti-metaphysical authority, both of which feed radical views. More often than we like to admit, necessity, as an acknowledgment of universal truth, slips into demagoguery, which encourages strict textualism and eliminates contingency, defined here as a practice that stipulates and prioritises synthesis and dialogical understanding of knowledge. Infusing a sense of contingency into the dominant rhetoric of necessity in curricular practices will initiate a move from dogmatic inculcation into the open terrain of inclusivity. Without a curriculum of metaphysics, we risk reducing our graduates to demagogues, susceptible to institutionalised knowledge marked by ethnocentric and essentialist confines. Such normativity threatens to eliminate not only contingency but divergence, while envisioning a curriculum of metaphysics will help us rediscover Islam within the paradigm of contemporaneity and provide practices and cognitive skills that dispel dogmatic and doctrinal thinking. Exploring epistemological alternatives reinvigorates religious training, helps synchronise reason with faith, which is ultimately conducive to civilised society, and advocates contingency to stimulate the synthesis and dialogical dissemination of knowledge that captures the language of Tajdeed (legitimate renovation) in Islamic education.

Under the pretext of adherence to traditional learning, students of Islamic Studies often become subject to an intellectual marginalisation with a lack of actual engagement in research, becoming indoctrinated by what their professors and institutions consider the only correct interpretation of the scripture. This dogmatic method diminishes students’ capacities for learning because institutions tend to mandate what their students are expected to believe and to determine their students’ allegiance to a certain school of thought. Students of Islamic studies need to experience choice as a pedagogical approach in order to better understand and engage with the ideal of truth-seeking that should be the guiding principle in higher education. A dogmatic hierarchy pervades and limits a pluralistic perspective that provides access, innovation, and liberal thought that can be found within the Islamic tradition itself without becoming either a pursuit of conflicting foreign ingredients or a fetishisation of Western thought and education.

The remedy is derived from an educational incarnation of the Islamic philosophical tradition itself that promoted intellectual thinking, such as the Kalam school or Al-Ra’y school, which flourished during the golden age of the Islamic civilisation. A curriculum uninformed by the metaphysics of contingency becomes a battlefield in which rapid dominance and a disruption of dialogical communication dominates the rhetoric and determines the outcomes. This rhetoric, in turn, limits a society’s inclinations towards tolerance, the equal participation of all citizens in sociocultural life, and religious identities, which ensure a shared framework of citizenry. As Jackson and Oleksiyenko argue, ‘Choosing between silence and communication, the university should be a place that cultivates open society through enlightened dialogue, even when societies find it difficult to overcome the legacy of repressed freedoms, and urge their scholars to nurture surrogates of freedom in order to sustain their academic careers’ (Jackson & Oleksiyenko, 2021, para 6). The idea of a university served to establish a locus for intellectual thought that negotiates epistemic crises untarnished by manipulative forces and protected from power politics. This article argues for the need to consider interpretive pedagogical scholarship in order to conceptualise a metaphysics-embedded curriculum.

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Full Citation Information:
Abdul-Jabbar, W. K. (2021). Free speech and education in the Arab and Islamic world: The curriculum of metaphysics. PESA Agora.

Wisam Kh. Abdul-Jabbar

Wisam Kh. Abdul-Jabbar is an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta and adjunct faculty at Yorkville University, Canada. His most recent book is Negotiating Diasporic Identity in Arab-Canadian Students: Double Consciousness, Belonging, and Radicalization (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). His upcoming book is Medieval Muslim Philosophies and Contemporary Intercultural Education: Fostering Dialogues of Difference (Routledge, 2022). His research considers how intercultural competency resonates with minority and diasporic identity. It also explores convergences of seemingly different cultures within the context of language education. His research looks at intercultural practices to help better integrate immigrants and create a culturally responsive curriculum.