Updated: Jun 12, 2018
What is it that is significantly different about the iSyllabus Islamic studies program compared to other course on offer in the West? Surely most courses are essentially the same?
I am asked this question all the time from prospective students, as well as scholars who have their own educational initiatives running in the West.
When we set-out to write our curriculum, there was already a number of innovative initiatives doing excellent work in the field of Islamic education: they covered both essential Islamic knowledge as well as offering ongoing advanced studies in the Islamic sciences. However, when looking to enhance the provision of Islamic education in the West, we focused on five key issues identified as being critical to making Islamic education serve the needs of individuals and communities. These issues revolved around the central question all famous traditional curriculum of the Muslim world would have asked: What is the religious and social function for which students are being prepared?
The subsequent review informed the full program that iSyllabus now offers. We asked why we are educating, how it is done and what we use as a marker of success. We believe this review, as well as the ongoing discussion and dialogue with teachers and scholars, makes the courses we offer unique. So what are these key issues?
1. Relevance. Identifying the most relevant topics of religious discourse in the West. The issues discussed and debated by Muslims and non-Muslims about Islam was central to deciding what content should be at the centre of the full curriculum. In a largely post-religious world as we live in today, such a recalibrating of religious content is particularly important to safeguard religion itself from being seen as irrelevant. After incorporating the essentials that every Muslim should know about their religion, the course develops the capacities within students that will aid them in flourishing into confident members of their societies. What are the core methodological issues that require attention in teaching an Islam that is both true to its intellectual heritage yet responsive to the age we live in? What are the elements that need to be developed in an Islamic studies curriculum to move towards a constructive and balanced Sunni orthodoxy/orthopraxy? What types of polemics are targeted against Islam and how can Muslims develop a framework that adequately defends its core teachings from such challenges? These are just some of the core questions that we asked on the issue of relevance.
2. Function. Acknowledging the changing dynamics of religious leadership in the Modern world. One observation made while surveying religious practice in the West is the changing dynamics in the provision of religious advocacy and guidance. Effective religious leadership is no longer centralised with a person like an Imam. Instead new and dynamic structures dictated by social media and community initiatives are developing apace. Religious scholarship has now become democratised and this is a phenomena that should be embraced by our scholarly tradition, being as it is inherently part of the tradition. Any religious training program that is taught in the West has to therefore be aware that students that complete their studies will be required to provide religious guidance and inputs in a wide array of contexts.
3. Synthesis. Incorporating elements from successful Islamic studies syllabi of the Muslim world. A review was done of the most signifiant syllabi used in the Muslim world. These include: The Darsi Nizami of the Subcontinent (which is now albeit only partially taught as compared to the original curriculum) with its focus on the ancillary sciences; The Tahqiq (verification) method of Kurdish scholarship used in Turkey, Iraq and Syria, which focuses on discursive teaching methods; The Syrian model, best exemplified by Mahad al-Fath in Damascus, known for both its rigorous repetition and review of core content coupled with the comprehensive array of sciences covered.
The Syrian model was used to ensure that students adequately complete all core content with the required degree of competency; The relevant elements from all the above were incorporated to inform the content of our program.
4. Language. Nurturing the English language as a Muslim language of instruction. Throughout its history, Islam has naturally integrated itself into native cultures and made use of indigenous languages to spread its teaching. In doing so it elevated them, as with Persian, Malay, Hausa, Turkish, Urdu and others, to being civilisational languages of the Ummah. As a result, Muslim scholarship was able to develop and be internalised by the cultures of the lands where these languages were spoken.
This was a statement of intent by Muslims scholars of a long term commitment to these lands. English is now the common language of communication for the majority of the world’s Muslims and so iSyllabus is committed to creating a complete and holistic Islamic studies curriculum that is fully teachable via the English language. It also works to develop a students appreciation of the Arabic language by focusing on core technical Arabic vocabulary used in the Islamic sciences.
By giving students the context and significant variations in vocabulary usage, the course is able to create leverage to enhance a students understanding of the subjects studied.
This is also a logical step to take, since studies in educational pedagogy continually show that the internalisation and understanding of fine and nuanced points, such as those discussed in Islamic law and theology, is either missed or misconstrued if the language of instruction is one that the learner does not have complete mastery of.
5. Competency. Developing religious literacy and competency in the Islamic sciences. While rote-learning has always had a role in Islamic pedagogy, the insistence to overly rely on this element of religious training has had a detrimental result on the educational development. The program developed by iSyllabus plots a student’s progression not simply through how much they have memorised. Rather it measures the development of critical religious literacy as well as competency over the contents of the subjects studied.
Identifying the logical fallacies inherent in so much discourse on Islam - both from Muslims and non-Muslims - is one of the critical challenges facing students of the Islamic sciences today. The ability of students to navigate real-life as well as academic scenarios using their learning is key to measuring successful Islamic syllabi today.
The Result: Our Courses
The resultant iSyllabus course is therefore bespoke and has been authored from the ground up - from the opening modules to the final lessons, incorporating the action points identified in the review above. As a result we offer three levels of courses which build a pathway to serious Islamic scholarship.
The Diploma course serves as an excellent entry to a nuanced yet fulfilling experience of the Islamic sciences as they relate to both the individual and society in the 21st Century. The modules and material is fully integrated and refined so as to cover core hermeneutical concepts in a graded manner and incorporates life-hacks that make living one’s faith a fulfilling experience. The course both contextualises core texts as well as enhances the spiritual aspect of one’s religious observance.
The Intermediary course develops an understanding of the primary texts of the Quran and Sunnah covered in the Diploma course, exploring the context and history of the Classical religious corpus of Islam. It incorporates detailed studies of religious text as well as the trends that led to their being set down in writing. Why did Fiqh develop the
way we know it today? What are the main trends in Classical Islamic theology and what led to their genesis? How can the classical spiritual tradition of Islam help in creating healthier individuals and societies today?
The Advanced course, as the two year culmination to the full course, focuses on the relevance of the Classical corpus of Islam to the challenges that Muslims face today. What can our intellectual tradition teach us in responding to the main Ethical and religious questions we face? To what degree are Religions decisive and violent by nature? What is the Question of Evil and what does Islamic theology say about it? Can Islamic law be applicable in the West? Can an understanding of the breadth of scholarly opinion on contentious issues help provide solutions to seemly intractable problems Muslims face? Does Islam have the requisite framework for navigating the problematics of Gender that affect religious scriptures generally?
Indeed the vast majority of the content which I teach in the Advanced course, such as on Polemics, Apologetics and the Philosophy of religion, is not covered in any Alimmiyah course, but is nevertheless today an absolute necessity for advanced students of knowledge.
Is this an Alim course?
This question is bereft of any substantiative meaning in the present age. The state of Islamic education in most parts of the Muslim world means that what was considered in the past as an Alimiyyah level education can hardly be equated to what is offered today in almost all Islamic seminaries.
As an alternative we should be asking the question posed at the start: What is the religious and social function for which students are being prepared?
To create syllabi that answer to the needs of the age is the pressing challenge for Muslim educationalist. The graded courses we offer allow students to work up to gain a high level competency in the Islamic sciences and set them up to upon completion to be fast tracked if they desire to pursue further studies through the medium of the Arabic language. This makes their education that they have received relevant and compelling. It is my experience that a further two years of full time study would not only equate to but surpass the level offered in traditional Alimmiyyah courses.
Given the thought that has gone into the iSyllabus course, it represents a comprehensive recalibration of the way Islamic education is delivered in the West.
SHAYKH RUZWAN MOHAMMED
iSyllabus Educational Director