Violence in Islamic Pedagogy and Education

Let us start with three accounts that seem somehow chronologically separated. The first one is related to an online fatwā portal, where a certain inquirer in November 2005 in posed a question on the legitimacy of violence as means of education used by teachers during their classes. The answer issued by a Hisam ad-Din, a mufti from Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, has been circulated since in the cyber space and follows in several points: a teacher is forbidden to beat his student only for disagreeing with him or out of anger lest he lost control; he is to apply disciplining violence whenever all other means have failed, according to the prophet Muhammad, and following a prescriptions from him to urge children to prayer when they are seven years old, and beat them to it, when they are as old as ten.

In the opinion of Hisam al-Din, there is divergence of opinions on the number of lashes that a student is to be inflicted: some of the ‘ulamā’ , he goes on, recommend three lashes while others see ten as an appropriate measure. Ultimately, the mufti reasons, the call to abolish violence as educational means, would have a negative impact on the educational process as a whole.

The second point is an observation made by the anthropologist of Islam Dale F. Eickelman. In his exploration of what he calls “the art of memory” within Islamic education and it social reproduction in Morocco , he remarks that whenever a father handed his child over to a teacher, that was done with the formula that the child could be beaten according to the teacher’s own discretion. As a rule, punishments have been intended to induce a respect for accurate Qur’anic recitation; added to this, former students have explained that the teacher or the parent when he supervised the process of memorization “was regarded as only the impersonal agency of the occasional punishments which, like the unchanging word of God itself, were merely transmitted by him. Moreover, students were told that any part of their bodies struck in the process of Qur’anic memorization would not burn in hell.”

The third account rapidly pushes us through some seven centuries’ leap back in the past. The voluminous collection of Ibn Taymiyya’s (d. 1328) Hanbali authoritative fatāwā, elaborates in a short chapter on the idea of corruption of children by their masters. Corruption is, informs us the textual corpus, to teach children beggary, and prevent them from obtaining gain in a piously permissible manner (kasb ḥalāl), as well as leading them into all other sorts of reproachable misdoings. Hence, such custodians would be liable to severe punishments to stop them from inflicting such deteriorations by virtue of a simple point: by not adhering to a proper pedagogical praxis, the careless custodians blatantly fail in fulfilling the divine imperative to teach their children what Allah has commanded and in educating them to obey God and His Prophet. To substantiate this pedagogically charged statement on responsibility of parents and masters of children, Ibn Taymiyya links to a tradition of Muhammad that admonishes Muslims to command their children the rulings of ritual prayer when they are seven years old, and beat them to it, when they grow as old as ten.

It constitutes a methodological challenge to look at the three pieces of reference from the point of view of historical continuity and religious justification of a practical dimension of Muslim pedagogies. At first glance, they are united by the general prescription to apply flogging in order to facilitate a certain behavioral outcome. Yet, several questions immediately arise. Could we infer a theoretical and practical linkage between them as part of a fairly consistent historical approach to a Muslim educational norm regulating application of beating as a pedagogical method? If existence of such a normative framework is found, how has it evolved historically within the primary texts that facilitated its constitution? What would be the possible relation of motivation to the separate individual acts of violence within the educational sphere? Are we able then to judge on motivation of social agents within the Muslim educational sphere? And to what extent the religious element the use of which develops in a chronological plan would be part of such a motivation? Are these two events rather accidentally convergent occurrences on the basis of contextual historical and cultural localisms the grounding of which on a Muslim conceptual educational basis would seem rather coincidental? How could we avoid the danger of essentialism with its gross generalizations, on one hand, and the traps of fragmentation of explored material to the degree of not being able to make conclusions beyond the scope of the immediately observable samples, on the other?

* Final proof of the print article published in Schüler und Meister [Disciples and Masters], ed. by Speer, Andreas & Jeschke, Thomas, De Gruyter, 2016.

** Article version from February 2013 download here.