Classical Education in the Muslim Tradition

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This is an Altum essay.

Editor’s Introduction: 

This week’s essay is by Cori Saleh, founder of Revival Ihya School in Pennsylvania, an academy in the tradition of Muslim classical education.

Some of our readers may not be aware that the Muslim tradition, like both the Jewish and Christian traditions, was deeply influenced by a dialogue with Greek paideia. In fact, it was largely through Islamic philosophers such as Ibn Sina (known in the west as Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Latinized as Averroes), and Al-Ghazali (Lat. Algazelus) that medieval western thinkers encountered the full complexity of Greek philosophy after the fall of Rome and the subsequent loss of Greek learning in the west. Along with the works of Plato and Aristotle, Islamic thinkers received Greek mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and other sciences, and extended these branches of learning beyond what the ancients had achieved. As Islamic culture moved across north Africa and into Spain, western thinkers encountered and learned from this rich cultural heritage, a process that continued for many centuries.

In our own time, an effort is underway to revive Muslim classical education in a way that honors both its own traditions of paideia and those of the western lands in which Muslims often find themselves. Zaytuna College, the first accredited Muslim liberal arts institution of its kind, was founded in 2009. Led by Dr. Hamza Yusuf, Zaytuna has hosted lectures and conversations with eminent thinkers such as Eva Brann, Roger Scruton, David Bentley Hart, and many others. Zaytuna is the center of a movement bringing contemporary Islamic paideia back into dialogue with Islam’s own rich heritage and the heritage of the west. Readers of Altum are highly recommended to peruse Renovatio, Zaytuna’s excellent online journal, which contains many of the guest lectures mentioned above, as well as profound reflections on cultural and political questions, from abortion to artificial intelligence and beyond, offered from a Muslim perspective.

In the essay below, Cori Saleh describes the origins of Muslim classical education and its contemporary revival.


“Read: In the name of thy Lord Who createth,
Createth man from a clot.
Read: And thy Lord is the Most Bounteous,
Who teacheth by the pen,
Teacheth man that which he knew not.”
–Pickthall Translation of Surah Al-Alaq 96:1-5

The first verse of the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was an injunction to read. We are called by our Lord to read and reflect upon the signs of our Creator. This verse sets the tone for the entire spiritual and intellectual heritage of Muslim civilization. The purpose of education in Islam is threefold: The giving of knowledge (ta‘lim), the preservation of our primordial nature (tarbiyyah), and the inculcation of virtue and moral character (adab). (1)

In the Muslim tradition, the ultimate source of knowledge (‘ilm) is revelation; namely, the Qur’an and the collected Prophetic practices and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith), peace and blessings be upon him. According to Ali b. Abi Talib, “Knowledge is a single point, and the ignorant multiplied it.” There are three main divisions of knowledge in Islam: religious knowledge, pure reason, and natural sciences. Religious knowledge encompasses knowledge of God; pure reason which arise from logical deductions of demonstrated truths; and natural sciences stem from the exploration of the physical world. (2)

Tarbiyyah refers to the growth and development of the human being, with the ultimate aim being the perfected human being in mind, body, and soul. The Qur’an says, “It is He who has appointed you vicegerent on the earth” (Quran 6:165). In reference to the inculcation of adab, Sayyid Muhammad Naqib al-Attas said:“ It is adab in the all-inclusive sense…as encompassing the spiritual material life of a man, that instills the quality of goodness sought after.” (3) Much like Aristotle’s definition of prudence, to have adab is to ‘give someone or something its correct due.’ (4) The cultivation of moral and intellectual virtues are central to the embodiment of divine qualities. Education is primarily the pursuit of truth through faith (Iman), of good through submission (Islam), and of beauty through perfection (Ihsan). (5)


In pre-Islamic Arabia, the Arabs did not have any formal educational systems or institutions. Although the Arabs were almost entirely illiterate, they had a sophisticated culture and language. Poetry was the ultimate mode of expression, and the Arabs developed a strong oral tradition based on memorization. To this day, pre-Islamic poetry, and the Qur’an, are foundational to the study of the Arabic language. As the Qur’an was being revealed, oral transmission and memorization were used as means for preserving the religion. After the canonization of the Qur’an and the hadith, the intellectual processes of ijma (consensus of the scholars) and qiyas (analogical reasoning) were formally instituted.

During the classical period of Islam in the 8th-15th centuries, eight fundamental texts in the philosophy of education emerged. (6) Although these texts were rooted in the Qur’an and sunnah (Prophetic tradition), they were greatly inuenced by Arab/Persian culture and the Greek educational system (paideia). According to the great Persian scholar and polymath, Imam Al-Ghazali, also known as Algazelus or Algazel in Latin, education is “to know the meaning of obedience and service to God.”; and, “[knowledge/education] should be something that improves your heart (qalb) and cleanses your soul (rūḥ).” (7) Al-Ghazali introduced the study of both the sacred and rational sciences in a way that was balanced and holistic. At this time there was a signicant movement in Graeco-Arabic translation, with Muslim scholars translating ancient Greek texts into Arabic, including, but not limited to works by Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, and Diosocrides.

In the middle period of Islam, from the 15th to the 18th centuries, the integration of sacred and rational sciences became institutionalized in the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires. In this period, all of the educational institutions or madaris integrated the sacred sciences (Ulum al-Naqliyyah) and the rational sciences (Ulum al-Aqliyyah) into the curriculum. (8) The sacred sciences included Qur’an and exegesis, traditions of the Prophet, Arabic language, grammar, rhetoric, literature, principles of the law, Islamic law, and theology. The rational sciences included philosophy, ethics, division of inheritance, logic, medicine, natural sciences, and mathematics. (9) It was during this period that European students benefited from the madrasah system; the works and translations of Muslim philosophers greatly inuenced Western models of education and contributed to the Western Renaissance in the 14th-15th centuries. (10)

Due to the widespread impact of colonialism and the regression of intellectual and scientic innovation in the Muslim world, traditional ideas on education began to change. Educational reformers attempted to “Islamicize” Western philosophical and educational models and embrace a reductionist mentality regarding the great scholars and works of the past. (11) This inevitably led to the adoption of progressivist conceptions of education among the Muslim majority, especially in immigrant populations. Considering that most Muslims who immigrated came to the United States in search of economic opportunity, the focus of education became almost entirely utilitarian. Islamic schools were designed in the image of the public school system—yet most of them lacked the funding or qualifications necessary to provide a high-quality education. The Muslim tradition of the liberal arts, or comprehensive studies (al-Dirasat al-Jami‘ah), was stowed away as an old book gathering dust, waiting for someone to uncover the treasures hidden within its pages.


Out of the darkness of ignorance came a light in the form of one man: Hamza Yusuf Hanson. Hamza Yusuf, an American-born convert and scholar, has inspired Muslim men and women to revive classical education in Muslim communities all over the world. His ultimate vision was to bridge the gap between the West and the East, integrating both the Western and Eastern classical traditions. In 2009, Hamza Yusuf established the first Muslim liberal arts college in America with the intention to “to aid students in their own pursuit and discovery, inculcating the love of beauty, truth, and goodness in a human being.” (12) At Zaytuna College, teachers utilize both dialectical and didactic pedagogical approaches, reflective of both Latin and Islamic scholasticism. Students engage with primary texts from the Western canon, as well as the great commentaries on those works. A difference between Zaytuna College and other great books colleges is the primacy of the Arabic language and the memorization of the Qur’an. For Zaytuna, the Arabic language is the key to the sacred sciences. (13) In Britain, Abdul Hakim Murad founded the Cambridge Muslim College, dedicated to training British Muslims in the classical Islamic sciences. In the spirit of the medieval madrasah system, Cambridge Muslim College offers a Bachelor of Arts program which integrates the sacred and rational sciences. Students study Quranic studies, hadith studies, theology, Arabic grammar (nahw), logic (mantiq), rhetoric (balagha), and ontological categories (maqulat).

In terms of primary and secondary schools, few attempts have been made to institutionalize classical learning among Muslim children. In Fremont, California, Peace Terrace Academy offers a classically inspired academic and Islamic education for Pre-K to 8th grade students. Their mission is to encourage students towards ethical decision-making, critical thinking, and a lifelong love of learning. Inspired by Hamza Yusuf and Zaytuna College, we established Revival Ihya School, the first official Muslim liberal arts elementary school in the United States. Our vision is to produce a whole, perfected human being in mind, body, and soul through the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. Our program offers a fully-integrated Muslim liberal arts education for 1st to 6th grade students. Revival refers to the revival of the Muslim classical tradition, and Ihya references the great educator Imam Al-Ghazali and his pinnacle work Ihya Ulum al-Din or the Revival of the Religious Sciences. Our goal is to develop a model that can be replicated in Muslim communities all around the world. The renewal of the Muslim classical tradition is still in its infancy and it depends on three major factors: submission to and success from God, a return to our primordial nature, and the institutionalization of the traditional pedagogy and curriculum of the madrasah system in Islamic schools.

1. Abdul Aziz Ahmed, Educating Children Riyadatul Sibyan 2013.
3. Sayyid Muhammad Naqib al-Attas, Aims and Objectives of Islamic Education 1977.
3. Abdul Aziz Ahmed, Educating Children Riyadatul Sibyan 2013.
4. Zaytuna College (
5. Muhammad Umar, Classical Foundations of Islamic Thought 2020.
6. Cook,B. and Malkāwī, F., Classical Foundations of Islamic Educational Thought 2010.
7. Muhammad Umar, Classical Foundations of Islamic Thought 2020.
8. Bayard Dodge, Muslim Education in Medieval Times 1962.
9. Muhammad Umar, Classical Foundations of Islamic Thought 2020.
10. Muhammad Umar, Classical Foundations of Islamic Thought 2020.

Cori Saleh graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Lycoming College in 2013. During her undergraduate studies, she was a teacher’s assistant and tutor for the Religious Studies Department. Since 2014, Cori has been teaching in a variety of roles and settings, including a religious institution and non-profit organization. In 2020 Cori started Revival Ihya School, a fully integrated academic and Islamic education program for 1st to 6th grade students. Cori is the Education Director at the Islamic Education Center of PA. Aside from teaching and program management, Cori is also a curriculum writer for Tayba Foundation and a graduate student pursuing a Master of Arts in Teaching in Classical Education at Templeton Honors College. 

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