Unlocking the Power of Teachers:
Ghazali’s Insights on Education and the Role of Teachers
The curriculum is a process. It is not a set of documents distributed win a central government office. The curriculum is based on a set of beliefs and views about the classification and organization of knowledge the respective roles of the teacher and learner, and the process of learning.
It may seem obvious that good teaching is carried out by good teachers, but within this simple concept are many diverse issues. Is a good teacher one who comes to school early and stays late? Is he or she one who stimulates the children, writes copious notes about philosophy of education or plans every moment of the day according to a teacher’s maul? Does the teacher’s dress have any bearing on ‘good teaching’? Can the individual who does not speak to his or her neighbours make a good teacher?
The idea of ‘good teacher’ is not simply a job description related to employment contracts, it is the very essence of educational philosophy. Earlier in the century the ‘good teacher’ was a ‘good disciplinarian’. With this notion came a particular understanding of the curriculum and classroom practice. During the l960s, the teacher was seen as a ‘facilitator’ inspiring children to ‘discover’ knowledge. This contrasted with the image of the all-knowledgeable specialist whose job it was to ‘till empty vessels’ with a commodity called ‘knowledge’.
Educationalists have arrived at the conclusion, that effective change in education cannot take place without re-examining the role of’ the teacher. This is an on-going process and the teacher is now seen as a ‘reflective practitioner’ or ‘an artist who is constantly striving to improve his or her art’. Stenhouse (1985) made a ‘call to arms’ saying that ‘the way ahead is to disseminate the idea of teacher as artist with the implication that artists exercise autonomy of judgement founded upon research directed towards the improvement of their art.’
Teachers need to reflect. They need to improve, but improvement does not take place in a vacuum. It takes place in discussion about issues. The contribution of early Muslim philosophers and educationalists can make an interesting contribution to this discussion.
THE ROLE OF THE TEACHER IN ISLAMIC EDUCATION
The Prophet Muhammad,upon him be peace, affirmed: ‘Verily I was sent as a teacher.’ and himself established the status and role of the teacher. He chose, prepared and sent Companions to teach whole communities. Of all aspects of Islamic education, the role of the teacher has been the most clearly defined one.
The teacher has always been more important than the books. Imam al-Shafi’i, the famous jurist, said: ‘Whoever learns from books will miss the required achievement’ (lbn Jumah, p.87). Among the most concise descriptions of the teacher’s role was written by Imam al-Ghazali (d, 505H/ 1113) in his Ihya Ulum al-Din. (‘The Revival of the Islamic Sciences’) and his Ayyuha 1-Walad (‘0 Child!’). A text written nearly a hundred years later and covering similar themes and used in training teachers. Ta’lim al-Muta’allim by al-Zamuji. has also been translated into English. Below we summarise some of the main principles of teaching according to al-Ghazali.
GHAZALI’S VIEW OF TEACHING AND LEARNING
Ghazali likens studying to the acquisition of wealth. There are four states in both. One may he:
“actively seeking them but relying on others
self sufficient and independent
enjoying one’s hard-earned acquisition
enjoying and sharing one’s acquisition with others.
The fourth state is the highest. The one who shares his wealth is charitable. The one who shares his knowledge is a teacher. The Prophet upon him he peace said: ‘The best of you is the one who learns the Qur’an and teaches it.’ However, not all who claim to be teachers fall into this category.”
In his hook al-Bidaya ,Ghazali describes three types of teacher: ‘There is a man who seeks knowledge as a provision for the life to come … he is of the successful ones’. There is the one who seeks knowledge for worldly benefit. This person is in jeopardy. It is possible that his knowledge will save him and he will repent before he dies. If he does not repent, he may be faced with a bad ending and punishment in the Next World. The third type has been overcome by the devil. He has chosen knowledge as a means to get wealth and influence. In addition to this evil intention he has become arrogant and feels he has obtained a high status with God. Such a person is among those who will be punished in the Hellfire. To be of the first category, Ghazali prescribes eight duties.
1. EMPATHY WITH ONE’S STUDENTS
The teacher is often likened to the parent. He should feel the same sense of duty and love that the parent feels. The Prophet upon him be peace said: ‘I am to you like the father to his child.’
2. NOT WORKING FOR REMUNERATION
Teachers do the work of the Prophets,that is they educate people in the ways of goodness. The Prophets did not ask for remuneration. They said : ‘Oh my people, I ask you not for riches. My reward is of God alone’ (Hud. ll.29), Teachers should not feel that their students ‘owe’ them anything. They should always give the students full credit and respect for disciplining themselves in order to come close to God. Teachers should not feel pride in what they have done. Although a teacher is allowed to take payment, anyone that teaches for money will soon lose the satisfaction and pleasure of teaching. Payment is a necessary but secondary aspect of a teacher’s motivation. The Messenger, upon him be peace said: ‘Three things which (society) cannot do without: paying of teachers, otherwise people would be ignorant: the selling of Qur’ans otherwise the Book would become rare: and judges. otherwise people would ‘eat’ one another.’
3. GUIDANCE THROUGH THE PROGRAMME OF STUDY
The teacher should never hold back good advice. The religion is built on good counsel. Guiding the student is part of the religion. Groundwork must always be covered before attempting new tasks and approaching new concepts. ‘Guidance’ means reminding the student of the goal of study and condemning any desire for power boasting and competition.
4. SENSITIVITY AND GENTLENESS IN ADDRESSING STUDENTS
As a ‘guide’ the teacher should ‘drive away’ bad characteristics. This requires sensitivity and gentleness. Reprimand should take the form of suggestion as much as possible and guidance should not be through rebuking. Rebuking and outright and direct prohibition invite defiance and encourage stubbornness.
5. RESPECT FOR OTHER DISCIPLINES
The teacher must never belittle other fields of knowledge in front of his students. He should respect them and prepare his students to study all useful knowledge without impressing on them his or her own personal interests.
6. MATCHING THE LESSON TO WHAT THE STUDENT CAN UNDERSTAND
The teacher should follow the Prophets about whom the Prophet Muhammad said: ‘We Prophets have been commanded to place people in their rightful places and to speak to them according to their ability to understand.’ Giving students concepts which are beyond their comprehension may lead to misunderstanding and frustration. For this reason Jesus said: ‘Do not hang pearls around the necks of pigs.’ The teacher has to assess and evaluate the students’ level and then plan and guide.
7. DEALING WITH REMEDIAL LEARNERS
Not all people are the same. The teacher has to ensure, while helping learners to fulfil their potential that they are not given work or exposed to concepts which confuse and frustrate them. Some knowledge is compulsory. The teacher has to make sure the student attains this knowledge and then, sometimes, protect the student from going too far into what might cause harm.
8. PRACTISING WHAT ONE PREACHES
It is important that the teachers’ actions match what they teach. The student learns through observation of behaviour. Teachers open themselves to ridicule and accusation if their conduct belies their teachings. He will, through such behaviour, only encourage secret or open disobedience and bad character. In this respect a learned person has a greater responsibility than an ignorant one.
To be of the ‘best of people’ is not easy. The reward is great but so is the responsibility. The descriptions found in the works of Ghazali are as important today as they were 900 years ago. They are based on the words of the greatest of teachers. one who showed us how to fulfil that great role.
The process of curriculum development goes beyond mere paperwork originating from a central government office. It is rooted in a set of beliefs and perspectives regarding the classification and organization of knowledge, the roles of both teachers and learners, and the learning process itself.
While it may appear evident that good teaching is accomplished by competent teachers, the concept itself encompasses a wide range of diverse considerations. Is a good teacher someone who arrives early and stays late? Does it involve stimulating students, philosophizing about education, or meticulously planning every moment of the day? Should a teacher’s attire influence their effectiveness? Can a person who fails to engage with their colleagues still be considered a good teacher?
The idea of a “good teacher” extends beyond a mere job description outlined in employment contracts; it embodies the very essence of educational philosophy. In earlier times, a “good teacher” was defined as a strict disciplinarian. This perception was associated with a particular understanding of the curriculum and classroom practices. However, in the 1960s, the role of the teacher shifted to that of a “facilitator,” inspiring students to “discover” knowledge. This contrasted with the image of an all-knowing specialist who merely imparted information to passive learners.
Educationalists have come to the realization that effective change in education necessitates a reevaluation of the teacher’s role. This ongoing process has led to the emergence of the concept of the “reflective practitioner” or “artist” who constantly seeks to enhance their craft. Stenhouse (1985) emphasized the importance of viewing teachers as artists with autonomy in judgment, founded upon research aimed at improving their practice.
For teachers to grow and improve, reflection is crucial. However, improvement does not occur in isolation; it thrives in discussions centered around pertinent issues. The contribution of early Muslim philosophers and educationalists can offer intriguing perspectives to enrich this discourse.
THE ROLE OF THE TEACHER IN ISLAMIC EDUCATION
The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, affirmed, “Verily, I was sent as a teacher,” thereby establishing the significance and role of teachers. He personally selected, prepared, and dispatched companions to educate entire communities. Among all facets of Islamic education, the role of the teacher has been the most clearly defined.
Throughout history, the teacher has always held greater importance than the books themselves. Imam al-Shafi’i, the renowned jurist, remarked, “Whoever learns from books alone will miss the desired attainment.” Similarly, Imam al-Ghazali (d. 505H/1113) expounded on the teacher’s role in his works, “The Revival of the Islamic Sciences” (Ihya Ulum al-Din) and “O Child!” (Ayyuha al-Walad). Nearly a century later, another text covering similar themes, “Teaching the Learner” (Ta’lim al-Muta’allim) by al-Zarnuji, was translated into English. The following summarizes some key principles of teaching according to al-Ghazali.
GHAZALI’S VIEW OF TEACHING AND LEARNING
Ghazali likened the process of studying to acquiring wealth, identifying four states in both endeavors. One can either actively seek knowledge while relying on others, become self-sufficient and independent, enjoy the fruits of one’s hard-earned acquisition, or savor and share the acquired knowledge with others. The fourth state is deemed the highest, wherein the one who shares knowledge becomes a teacher. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “The best among you are those who learn the Qur’an and teach it.” However, not all who claim to be teachers fall into this category.
In his book “al-Bidaya,” Ghazali delineated three types of teachers. The first seeks knowledge as a means to attain success in the hereafter, while the second pursues knowledge solely for worldly gains, facing potential jeopardy. The second type may find salvation through repentance or face a detrimental outcome and punishment in the afterlife. The third type has succumbed to the devil, viewing knowledge as a means to acquire wealth and power. Coupled with evil intentions, this individual becomes arrogant and perceives themselves as having attained a high status with God. Such a person is among those destined for punishment in the Hellfire. Ghazali prescribed eight duties to be part of the first category.
EMPATHY WITH STUDENTS
Teachers are often likened to parents and should share the same sense of duty and affection. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “I am to you as a father to his child.”
SELFLESSNESS IN WORK
Teachers perform a noble task similar to that of the Prophets, educating people in the ways of righteousness. The Prophets did not seek material gain; they said, “O my people, I ask you not for wealth. My reward is with God alone” (Hud 11:29). Teachers should not consider their students indebted to them but should instead acknowledge and respect their students’ commitment to self-discipline and their pursuit of closeness to God. Teachers should not take pride in their actions. While accepting payment is acceptable, anyone teaching solely for money will quickly lose the joy and satisfaction of teaching. Payment is a necessary but secondary motivation for teachers. The Messenger, peace be upon him, said, “Society cannot do without three things: paying teachers, or else people would be ignorant; selling Qur’ans, or else the Book would become scarce; and judges, or else people would oppress one another.”
GUIDING THROUGH THE CURRICULUM
Teachers should offer unwavering guidance and advice, as the religion is built upon good counsel. Guiding students is an integral part of the faith. Before introducing new concepts, it is crucial to cover foundational material. “Guidance” entails reminding students of the study’s goal while condemning desires for power, boasting, and competition.
SENSITIVITY AND GENTLENESS IN ADDRESSING STUDENTS
As guides, teachers should strive to eliminate negative qualities. This requires sensitivity and gentleness. Reproaches should be suggestive whenever possible, avoiding direct rebukes. Rebuking and outright prohibition often invite defiance and foster stubbornness.
RESPECT FOR OTHER DISCIPLINES
Teachers must never belittle other fields of knowledge in front of their students. They should foster respect for various subjects and prepare students to explore all useful knowledge without imposing personal biases.
ADAPTING LESSONS TO STUDENTS’ CAPACITY
Teachers should emulate the Prophets, as the Prophet Muhammad stated, “We Prophets were commanded to put people in their rightful places and speak to them according to their understanding.” Introducing concepts beyond students’ comprehension may lead to confusion and frustration. Jesus also advised, “Do not cast pearls before swine.” Therefore, teachers must evaluate students’ levels, plan accordingly, and provide appropriate guidance.
ADDRESSING REMEDIAL LEARNERS
Not all individuals possess the same capabilities. While helping students reach their potential, teachers must ensure they are not overwhelmed with work or exposed to concepts that confuse and frustrate them. While certain knowledge is essential, teachers must safeguard students from delving too deeply into potentially harmful areas.
PRACTICING WHAT ONE TEACHES
It is crucial for teachers to exemplify the behaviors they impart. Students learn through observing their teachers’ conduct. Teachers risk being ridiculed and accused if their actions contradict their teachings. Such behavior only fosters disobedience and negative character traits. Consequently, those with knowledge bear greater responsibility than the ignorant.
Attaining the status of the “best of people” is no easy feat. The rewards are significant, but so are the responsibilities. Ghazali’s descriptions, grounded in the words of the greatest teachers, remain as pertinent today as they were 900 years ago.