Reviving the Culture of Idealism

A recent seminar at a local university came to “question time” after detailed presentations of the different tracks available to the participants who were mainly students. This call-for-questions was met with total silence.

Two microphones had been set up, yet not one single student approached these microphones. Furthermore, the session moderator, evidently unskilled in the matter and not knowing what to say, merely moved on to the next agenda item.

Could it be that these students’ respective paths in life were already crystal clear, so that they had nothing to ask, nothing to clarify, nothing to inquire about? No. These people appeared to be, by western standards anyway, brain dead.

The confusion arises when the concept of modesty, or more accurately its little brothers “shyness” or “timidity”, are then wrongly applied to a true “life of the mind”, by means of which, and ONLY by means of which, adult ideals are given birth. And this is true for young men and women alike.

Let us also admit that westerners make the mirror-image mistake of imagining that assertiveness is the progressive way in all aspects of life. In this, westerners (especially the women) are tragically mistaken. However, it is no mistake to admit that the human mind has been incredibly more lively in the western world than among Muslims, more or less since the final fall of Cordoba in Muslim Spain in 1492.

The cognitive treatment needed is to re-program the “ego”, so that it is NOT threatened by intellectual vigor, or even mistakes in front of one’s friends. Ask your youth, “Which is more important, the search for genuine knowledge, or protection of the public image from all forms of exposure, especially that of risking error?”

At heart, this is one of the traditional “nafs” – the compulsive need to appear right and correct, no matter what. It is very unfortunate that some false and insincere religious teachers always seem to look like this. While it is worrying when some religious teachers may reasonably look like this, as they impart revealed knowledge, a lecturer in college who looks like this should be considered a menace to the educational process.

Malays themselves admit that the social pressure to NEVER acknowledge (or apologize for) mistakes is of the highest priority in the totally un-Islamic side of their culture.

This “nafs” strives for the appearance of social status through always being right and correct, and this appearance is considered more important than the search for knowledge and ideals.

In the intellectual realm, this arrogance speaks of an underlying ignorance, and probably an inferiority complex as well. As the Chinese put it, “He who speaks does not know; he who knows does not speak.”

Let us further characterize the devious “nafs” involved in inferior teaching. This “nafs” is also known in western thinking as “fascism”. World War Two was the definitive battle (USA and the UK), against the almost worldwide fascism of the time.

Dictatorships were everywhere, and they almost won control of the entire world. The fascist countries (Germany, Italy, Japan) also dictated their ideals to the young people, who lapped them up like small animals trying to please their owners. And it is the seldom-acknowledged Muslim shame that most of their countries sided with the fascists.

Fascism is the death of intellectual vigor and inquisitiveness. The first symptom of fascism is the need to control others, often in the name of stability or public security. On the other hand, the first liberation from fascism is a real respect for the knowledge which others may bring to us – the knowledge, not the people. The “tree of democracy” plaque, recently vandalized in Perak, would only be desecrated by those who subscribe to this kind of ideology.

Our anti-fascist re-programming must be accompanied by role-play (behavioral) re-training. We must teach a style of dialogue that is intellectually cooperative (right brain), rather than socially competitive (left brain). The topic under discussion is like a badminton birdie kept aloft by both sides – what is important is keeping it aloft, not forcing your partner to miss it.

Consider Socrates as a role-model of the truly wise teacher. Socrates NEVER lectured, gave grades, or even worked under an administration. Socrates merely questioned his students relentlessly until these students could arrive at their own ideals and realization of the truth. The fascist parents, administrators, and judges-of-the-day got together and forced him to drink poison (the infamous hemlock). They could not bear having their children think for themselves.

On the other hand, two of Socrates’ students, Plato and Aristotle, became guiding lights to the entire western civilization, and even Islamic civilization when they were translated into Arabic by Muslim scholars of the Islamic “golden age”.

In college, we study various forms of revealed and acquired knowledge that help us to order our left-brain networks, yet we seem to overlook right-brain methodologies, by which ALL ideals must be “reality tested”. Logic itself is not enough. The reason is that right-brain itself relies on spontaneity and cannot easily be controlled by others. It can EMERGE, but it cannot be controlled.

How do you teach “emergence”? That is the most important question facing educators in the modern age. It involves a deep commitment to the ORDERLINESS of the human mind, whether left-brain planned and targeted (education-as ambition), or right-brain spontaneous (education-as-pleasure). It involves confidence that, left to their own “reality testing”, our children will themselves arrive at the truths of Islam. Yet this itself cannot occur if the parents fall short of Islamic ideals.

Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) used to say: “O Allah, benefit me with what you have taught me and teach me that which will benefit me and increase me in knowledge.” And for this reason one of the wise people, upon being questioned, “What is the way by which knowledge is obtained?”, answered: “With eagerness is it followed, with love is it listened to, with sole concern is it gathered, [teach your knowledge to the one who is ignorant, and learn from the one who teaches, for if you do that, you will come to know what you were ignorant of and you will memorise that which you (yourself) have learnt.

A glance at the teaching style of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) will reveal that the first step he makes toward his companions, when he wants to teach them something, is to make them love to listen to the lessons. This was done, sometimes by telling stories of the people of the past, or stories from the Qur’an.

Telling stories is the Muslim teaching style par excellence. Everybody likes a story. And so we tell stories, and then we ask our students questions about our stories that make them think. We do exactly the same with small children, who are models of inquisitiveness.

In this way, we honor one of history’s greatest teaching role-models, Socrates himself, and most importantly we emulate our own Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.). Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) was indeed a great super-teacher from long before “surfing the net” and “power points”.

Even students who seem to have lost their idealism will respond to such traditional models of educational process, if they can ever find them actually put into practice. If Muslim youth are losing their idealism, it may be because some of their teachers and elders are “brain dead”, even while nurturing their puny little egos into believing they are really “some hot stuff”.

Muslims have a hard time struggling for existence in a global economy that was NOT Islamized by the rich petro-Muslims in 1973, when it should have been. Even so, there are vast untapped possibilities for the elder Muslims to revive their own idealism, and participate in education-for-life with their own children. Let children and adults revive each other! What else could “family life” mean?


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