Towards Islamic Literacy: A Brief History (Part 1)

Since the term information literacy was coined, its definition has expanded and has been applied to a number of subject areas. There are such examples as computer literacy, cultural literacy, and visual literacy, but can we really justify a literacy of one religion? Or can we also envision models for a Jewish literacy or Pagan literacy? While I have no objection to this, I believe that there is an urgent need for Islamic literacy, given today’s political, spiritual, and intellectual climate that has allowed for the dissemination of misinformation on Islam and Muslims worldwide. The consequences of which have led to a seemingly unending chain reaction of deadly global crises involving Muslims. While this issue has been raised to a number of brilliant contemporary Islamic scholars worldwide, as of yet they have not been able to address it adequately. In my view, this issue must be addressed creatively and must be seen in the light of a paradigm shift, which we will discuss later.

In the last 20 years or so, Muslims have made major inroads into the future of Islamic education in America despite the challenges posed by the dominant American society. With the continued success of many Sister Clara Muhammad schools, Zaytuna College, Islamic Online University, ALIM, and many other efforts made by scholars, teachers, and organizations both in-person and online, the prospects for acquiring a basic and sometimes advanced knowledge of Islamic sciences and present-day issues are plentiful. However, the community still faces problems of Muslims misunderstanding their faith and allegedly carrying out terrorist attacks in its name, increasingly Islamophobic groups and individuals who perpetuate misinformation about Islam and Muslims, and debates internal to the Muslim community over liberalism and a lack of respect for the Islamic intellectual tradition. In turn, this has led these American Muslims to see Islamic literacy as a way to fill the gaps in knowledge and understanding. While the usage of the term Islamic literacy is relatively recent, the discussions around it are neither new nor original. The term has an evolving definition and history on which I hope to shed some light.

Al-Thaqafa al-Islamiyya

In the past, Islamic beliefs, practices, law, and ethical codes permeated Muslim societies, making it easy for someone living in or visiting those societies to gain literacy in Islam. However, if the common Muslim wanted to become more acquainted with religious knowledge and other subjects, he could do so by absorbing Arabic literature (adab). Dr. Umar Sulayman al-Ashqar notes that the likes of Ibn Khaldun and Shihab al-Din al-Qalqashandi (d. 1418 C.E.) described one of the aims of studying literature as, “the marginal acquisition of some of every field of knowledge.”[i]

However, in contemporary language, the word thaqafa is used to describe this relationship to knowledge, and carries a meaning close to our usage of the word literacy. The word thaqafa, in addition to meaning erudition (and other related concepts), is most often translated as culture. Therefore, those who write on the topic in Arabic not only speak in terms of information and knowledge acquisition, but also in terms of culture, civilization, and etiquettes. In antiquity, there was much literature written in Arabic expounding on the proper etiquettes of students and teachers. Such books are usually brief and serve either as admonitions for derelict students and scholars or guidebooks for novice pupils and rising teachers. They often describe a culture that existed in Islamic learning environments throughout history, but are now only maintained in a minority of institutions that value and seek to uphold traditional Islamic methods of teaching and learning, which is often characterized by oral transmission and memorization of texts in addition to an ascetic lifestyle focused on study and worship.

In some Arab Muslim societies, thinkers and educators have devoted much time to increasing their publics’ awareness of Islam beyond the absorption they will naturally acquire by virtue of living in Muslim families, communities, and societies. In these places, it has become abundantly clear that neither heredity or association, or even being native speakers of Arabic makes them sufficiently knowledgeable about Islam. This has caused many in this part of the world to think about how to make their citizens more literate in foundational matters of the religion. Consequently, countries such as Syria, Kuwait, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have established courses in Islamic literacy (or culture, as it can be defined) in institutions of higher learning.[ii]

Presently, the term al-thaqafa al-Islamiyya has emerged in popular usage by authors and educators at Islamic-themed schools throughout the Arab world as an effort to re-introduce their youth to their Arabic-Islamic heritage. Its usage, however, is relatively recent, only emerging in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Despite the fact that many of these authors borrow each other’s ideas in explaining what al-thaqafa al-Islamiyya is, they have not yet formed a scholarly consensus on the exact definition of the term. Nevertheless, I have gathered and translated some of these attempted definitions, which define the concept as: 

  • “Knowledge of the broader Islamic Community’s foundational elements by [examining] its past and present interplay with religion, language, history, civilization, values, and shared goals in a conscious and purposeful way.”[i]
  • “The collection of theoretical knowledge, information, and expertise, derived from the Qur’an and the Sunna, acquired by human beings who determine, in light of these sources, an individual’s thought and behavioral patterns in life.”[ii]
  • “The way of life lived by Muslims over their lifespan in accordance to Islam and its vision.”[iii]
  • “The collection of psychological, intellectual, ideological, moral, and behavioral attributes and characteristics by which the Islamic personality is distinguished [and is] acquired by knowledge of the general foundations of the Islamic Community, as well as the general foundations of the Islamic religion, [which are] derived from the Holy Qur’an, the authentic prophetic Sunna, and the intellectual efforts of scholars and thinkers, along with the reciprocal influences of the present reality.”[iv]
  • “The living image of the Islamic Community.”[v]

In these various definitions, we find some basic agreement that al-thaqafa as-Islamiyya encompasses the foundational elements of Islam, which are primarily derived from the Qur’an, Sunna, and other sources of information. Moreover, it reflects the issues of current times in some way. These issues are left abstract in the above definitions. However, were we to consider the stated imperatives of some of these authors, we would find a number of themes that dominate their contemporary discourse. Muhammad Musa al-Sharif enumerated eight themes in his book Al-Thaqafa al-Aamina:

  1. The correct conception of life and the universe.
  2. Increasing Muslims’ pride and confidence in Islam and to call others to it.
  3. Familiarization with the correct Islamic position on important matters.
  4. Guarding against uncertainties in the religion.
  5. Resisting the influence of external cultures.
  6. The role of Muslims in directing society.
  7. Looking towards the future of the Islamic Community.
  8. Acquiring balance and thoroughness in all aspects of life.[vi]

From a cursory glance at these themes, the reader might gather that writings on al-thaqafa al-Islamiyya comes from a place of anxiety over a future loss of an Islamic identity and culture and animosity against those perceived as aiding in its destruction. In many of these works, the West acts as the main antagonist in the story. Colonialism, neo-colonialism, Zionism, Western media, and their foreign policies in the Muslim world are all major topics of conversation discussed within these works. Westerners are sometimes mentioned in as much as they confirm certain stereotypes about the West or confirm the superiority of Muslim cultures. Conversely, they almost never mention anything about the growth of Islam in the West or Muslims’ unique placement in these societies and potential contributions to the global Muslim culture. This blaring omission along with the overall confrontational tone negates the usefulness of an Arab-Muslim understanding of al-thaqafa al-Islamiyya in the West where the attitudes and challenges are much different. In the next post, we will briefly examine how American Muslims have sought to address their set of challenges by developing their own concepts of Islamic literacy.

[i] “Al-akhdhu min kulli ‘ilmin bitaraf.” Al-Ashqar, Umar Sulayman. Nahw Thaqafa al-Islamiyya al-Aseela, Jordan: Dar al-Nafa’is, 2005, p. 18-20.

[ii] Al-Sharif, Muhamad Musa. Al-Thaqafa al-Aamina, Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2012, p. 26. 

[i] Al-Mazid, Ahmad ibn Uthman, et al. Al-Madkhal ila al-Thaqafa al-Islamiyya, Saudi Arabia: Madar al-Watn li al-Nashr, 2012, p. 12.

[ii] Musallam, Mustafa and Fathi Muhammad al-Zaghbi. Al-Thaqafa al-Islamiyya: Ta’rifuha, Masadiruha, Majalatuha, Tahaddiyatuha, al-Ithra: 2007, p. 18.

[iii] Cited from the periodical Al-Jundi al-Muslim in Al-Thaqafa al-Aamina, p. 23.

[iv]  Ibid. p. 23-24.

[v]  Ibid. p. 24.

[vi]  Ibid. pp.  42-62.

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