Islamic Reform and the Miseducation of the Negro

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Books dealing with the social dynamics of colonization in general and those in African American studies in particular can offer an extremely informative perspective for Muslims today. One such example is the 1933 publication titled The Miseducation of the Negro by African American historian Carter Godwin Woodson. In this book Woodson dissects why despite having become “free” from the bonds of slavery, a slave mindset persists, which keeps black folk not only socially and economically inferior to whites, but also makes them accept and even perpetuate such inferiority as an objective reality inherent to being black. Woodson mentions in the preface that the reason for this goes back to an education system initially designed by a class of white men to serve their needs:

“The so-called modern education, with all its defects, however, does others so much more good than it does the Negro, because it has been worked out in conformity to the needs of those who have enslaved and oppressed the weaker peoples.”

Although slavery and oppression may begin through a differential in economic and military powers utilized by the strong to forcefully exploit the weak, the long-term continuation of such a relationship can only take place if the weak accept it. Force alone is only a temporary tool that can be used to achieve a quick victory and possibly as a corrective from time to time. However, only through the cooperation of the oppressed can the powerful continue to assert their dominance over those who learned to be powerless.

In chapter 3 Woodson addresses how powerlessness is taught through the education system so it can be self-sustaining with black folk eventually taking the mantle to continue the cycle of miseducation on their own. Two of the most salient subjects he expounds on which particularly have relevance to current Muslim students’ experience in education are science and literature:

“From the teaching of science the Negro was likewise eliminated. The beginnings of science in various parts of the Orient were mentioned, but the Africans’ early advancement in this field was omitted. Students were not told that ancient Africans of the interior knew sufficient science to concoct poisons for arrowheads, to mix durable colors for paintings, to extract metals from nature and refine them for development in the industrial arts. Very little was said about the chemistry in the method of Egyptian embalming which was the product of the mixed breeds of Northern Africa, now known in the modern world as ‘colored people.’

From literature the African was excluded altogether. He was not supposed to have expressed any thought worth knowing. The philosophy in the African proverbs and in the rich folklore of that continent was ignored to give preference to that developed on the distant shores of the Mediterranean.”

Western education suffers from a case of historical amnesia. The origin of thought and science is hardly taught as part of a long progression that has literally spanned across the globe and manifested in every civilization. Rather, it is often simplistically presented as an adversarial relationship in which some white men were seeking to know the truth about the world and a few of them sacrificed their lives as they “stood up” against the Church. It is an epic battle between faith and reason, or God and science. As science produced magnificent technological advancements over time, thus “proving” that it “works”, God lost and white men emerged as the heroes in this story. Although this may sound silly, it is what gets imparted in the modern classroom as Woodson notes:

“Making desire father to the thought, our teachers either ignored [previous] influences or endeavored to belittle them by working out theories to the contrary.”

As many Muslims have lost touch with Islamic history as it was and accepted caricatured versions of it, the dire economic and intellectual conditions are blamed on the religion itself. This conclusion is not arrived at after a thoughtful study of the Islamic tradition, but is a reproduction of a mantra taught in Western education both explicitly and implicitly about how religion stifles progress. Unaware of the religious roots that propelled early Muslims to become the leaders of scientific progress in human civilization, including for example the development of algebra to deal with inheritance laws in the Quran, and astronomy to locate the direction of Mecca and accurately establish Islamic events in the lunar calendar, modern Muslims seek reform rooted in Western enlightenment, which is based on a worldview that is antithetical to belief in God or Revelation. Looking for material elevation, Muslims calling for “reform” adopt a system built to debase them:

“The people who maintained schools for the education of certain Negroes before the Civil War were certainly sincere; and so were the missionary workers who went South to enlighten the freedmen after the results of that conflict had given the Negroes a new status. These earnest workers, however, had more enthusiasm than knowledge. They did not understand the task before them. This undertaking, too, was more of an effort toward social uplift than actual education. Their aim was to transform the Negroes, not to develop them. The freedmen who were to be enlightened were given little thought, for the best of friends of the race, ill-taught themselves, followed the traditional curricula of the times which did not take the Negro into consideration except to condemn or pity him.”

It is difficult to overstate this problem. As Woodson puts it more bluntly, “The present system under the control of the whites trains the Negro to be white and at the same time convinces him of the impropriety or the impossibility of his becoming white.” How can one remain authentic to Islam while at the same time uncritically adopting a system of thought that explicitly tells him or her that no matter what, the problem is inherent within Islam? Islam is unique in that it is not only a set of rituals but it is also a worldview. The consequence of operating within parameters and terms set forth by Western ideals under the pretense of becoming enlightened is not going to lead to a reclaiming of some past imagined “Golden Age”, but a continuation of more of the same:

“With ‘miseducated Negroes’ in control themselves, however, it is doubtful that the system would be very much different from what it is or that it would rapidly undergo change. The Negroes thus placed in charge would be the products of the same system and would show no more conception of the task at hand than do the whites who have educated them and shaped their minds as they would have them function…Taught from books of the same bias, trained by Caucasians of the same prejudices or by Negroes of enslaved minds, one generation of Negro teachers after another have served for no higher purpose than to do what they are told to do. In other words, a Negro teacher instructing Negro children is in many respects a white teacher thus engaged, for the program in each case is about the same.”

The greatest resistance to this type of discourse would come from Muslims who have leveraged their positions to benefit from the system as it stands today. Challenges to the status quo that come about explicitly in the name of religion are considered irrational and must therefore be ridiculed and dismissed. For Muslims blinded by fear of losing their attained privileges for carrying the white “enlightenment” mantle, this is a struggle for reason and science, but they do not realize that the adversary in this battle is a worldview rooted in belief in God and Revelation:

“The ‘highly educated’ Negroes do not like to hear anything uttered against this procedure because they make their living in this way, and they feel that they must defend the system. Few miseducated Negroes ever act otherwise; and, if they so express themselves they are easily crushed by the large majority to the contrary so that the procession may move on without interruption.”

There is no such thing as value-free education. The modern education system imparts upon the students a way of looking at the world. It moulds the minds to adopt a set of thought patterns, which exalt the intellectual output that came out of Western Europe in what is referred to as the Age of Enlightenment, and disparage that which came out of anywhere else. It is selective in what it presents and misrepresents what it cannot avoid bringing up to disarm it. It is designed in a way that alleviates the burden from the “enlightened” West of having to put Muslims to sleep by producing new Muslims through an education system to do this for it:

“No systematic effort toward change has been possible, for, taught the same economics, history, philosophy, literature and religion which have established the present code of morals, the Negro’s mind has been brought under the control of his oppressor. The problem of holding the Negro down, therefore, is easily solved. When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”

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For in-depth discussions with Mohamed Ghilan on books such as the one featured in this Vignette through an Islamic perspective, join Andalus Book Club.

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