Ibn Khaldun’s Views on Education

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The great Islamic thinker Abdul al-Rahman Abu Zayd Ibn Muhammad Ibn Khaldun was born in 1332 in Tunis the capital of the Hafsid Empire. After the death of his family in the Black Plague also known as the Black Death, which killed approximately 200 million plus people. Ibn Khaldun remained alone and practiced solitude most of the time. He personally preferred the interactions of smaller group in comparison to large institutions and organizations. He would consider himself to be an independent critical thinker. Until he reached adulthood, he was educated at home by his father who also directed him towards the appreciation of Sufiism (the spiritual discipline) for gaining closeness to God and his father also encouraged him to go out in search of good teachers (Fromherz 2010). His education was not conformed to official institutions of madrassas and politically controlled collages as his teachers including his most influential master Al Abili showed strong resistance towards them because ‘students were purely attracted to the scholarships and material worldly benefits’ offered by these institutions of learning. Ibn Khaldun viewed these institutions to be educationally problematic (Al Muqaddimah). The Muqaddimah was an introduction to his book ‘Kitab Al-Ibar’, which he wrote at the time of his retreat after spending at least two years in prison. He completed the Muqaddimah in 1377 and continued with his career after he was appointed the highest academic post at Al Azahar University in Cairo and at the same time was appointed as a Maliki judge. He passed away in 1406 (Fromherz 2010).

Ibn Khaldun was a traveller, critical observer of human customs in every city he’s been to, he paid attention to how people were living, communicating to each other as well as their cultural, economical, political and educational impacts on their lives. For Ibn Khaldun, an essential pedagogy for students is travelling and experiencing which would fall under today’s western educationalist John Dewey’s pragmatic approach and experiential learning. Ibn Khaldun disliked staying in one madrassah and studying under one scholar as it can silence the student’s mind. Ibn Khaldun’s views on education were diverse as well as similar to many other medieval Muslim thinkers such as Imam al-Qabisi (d.967) of Qayrawan who was in fact the first educator who wrote the philosophy of education and guideline for the teachers to follow before embarking on teaching, Ibn Sahnun (817-870), Ibn Sina (980-1037) and Al Farabi (872-950). This is solely because pedagogy of teaching and learning had become a well-developed science by the fourteenth century in the Islamic world. He believed in a child-centred education and he warned against unnecessary punishments of students and recommended several methods of dealing with their discipline and character formation. We can see that today in West, there are differences of opinions amongst the philosophers of education regards to what is the best way of producing the next generation intellectual thinkers. If we look at the terms ‘learner-centred’, ‘student-centred’ and ‘child-centred’ are often used interchangeably by Western educators to stand for everything that’s good and wholesome in education. These three terms have a very similar philosophical basis, but ‘child-centred’ has the oldest history, drawing on the work of 18th century philosophers such as Rousseau and Locke. If we were to critically look into Rousseau and Locke’s philosophical understanding, how and by whom they were influenced, was it the Muslim Spain, works of people like Ibn Khaldun or the mighty Ottoman Empire shaking the lands of Europe.

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One of the well-known aspects to the Muqaddimah is the concept of Asabiyah (tribalism). He argues that Asabiyah decreases as civilization advances. He identifies the rise and fall of human civilization and analyses factors contributing to it (Rosenthal 1969). Another well-known concept discussed in the Muqaddimah is the concept of Umran (urbanism). He describes Umran to be a movement from Rural to Urban. He believed that living a nomadic life required a courageous behavior, whereas the city dwellers are under governmental laws and regulations and do not possess a power of resistance (Muqaddimah, p.167).

He begins the work of his Muqaddimah with analyzing the science of history. He observes northern Africa and the society around himself first, and discusses the genres of history. His approach to education is religious in nature and has a focus on understanding God’s law. From his writings, it can be evidently seen that Ibn Khaldun inclines towards Sufiism and his views are shaped particularly by Imam Ghazali. He concludes the Muqaddimah with Chapter six in which he engages in the educational sciences, from the human mind to the acquiring of knowledges. He beings by stating that the ability to think has three stages: The ability to sense and understand that things exist around us, the ability to form ideas and develop necessary behaviors to deal with other human beings, and the ability, which provides us with knowledge or opinions (Rosenthal 1969).

According to Ibn Khaldun, education is a social craft. Some of his ideas on education are as follows. He seems to have a general dislike for formal institutions of education such as the Madrassah. He criticizes the narrow syllabus of a madrassah. He believes scholars cannot be good politicians. He viewed the case of education and children’s upbringing from a social thinker’s perspective. Ibn Khaldun believes its appropriate for a teacher to create a curriculum according to the abilities of his students, and that the teacher should be careful not to expose the students to too many sciences at one time, as this would confuse the student who in turn will not achieve a good habit, and as a result may fail at them. He explained that the material being taught should be gradual and in a sequence easier for the students to grasp. Along with this he believed classroom material should be thoughtfully repeated to ensure all students understand equally (Muqaddimah, p.721).

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