Nothing amazes me more than the emphasis Islam lays on education, learning and deep reflection. While there is no doubt these elements are unfortunately not fully reflected by the cultural practices of Muslim communities in many parts of the world, it is undeniable that the very first verse revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was: ‘Read!’ of ‘Recite!’ (Qur’an 96:1).
I remember having a funny conversation with a friend who was telling me that Islam gives a lot of importance to the fundamentals of knowledge, which were reading and writing; the two essentials of literacy. I challenged him back by saying, ‘Well, the Quran does tell us to ‘Read!’, but it doesn’t say ‘Write!’. His answer was one I would never forget: ‘You need some forms of written texts in order for you to read, in the first place!’
The Importance of Knowledge in Islam
There is a variety of words used in the Holy Quran to describe the notion of knowledge. The words that can be formed from the term ‘know’ or ‘knowledge’ (root word is ‘Elm’ in Arabic) are found 865 times. God while trying to persuade humans to use their intellect and sound judgment has used in the Quran different types of words so as not to miss any important elements of seeking knowledge and gaining a deeper understanding of life.
Qur’anic verses mention ‘yatadabbar’ (to ponder or reflect), ‘yatafakkar’ (to think or contemplate), ‘ya’qil’ (to reason or judge), ‘ulul Albab’ (people of understanding or knowledge) and ‘uli Al-Nuha’ (people of intellect or intelligence).
Recognizing the importance of knowledge in guiding man to understand his life purpose and to help humans realize their highest potentials, the role of educational institutions is crucial.
Schools, colleges and universities should become the place not merely for drumming figures, numbers, facts and formulas into brilliant heads. Rather they ought to be the centers where vibrant ideas are discussed, doubts are shared and debated, myths are debunked, characters are built, morality and ethics are upheld, talents are nurtured, potentials are maximized, and civic responsibilities are taught.
In Islam, education is meant to eventually connect man to His creator by means of understanding, reflection, contemplation, systematic studies, ponder and intellect.
This week I had the privilege to interview the principal of Sekolah Tun Fatimah (STF), a premier all-girl boarding school located in the state of Johor, Malaysia. STF has been ranked as one of the best schools in Malaysia and received multiple prestigious awards including the ‘High Performance School’ award in 2010, and several others following its continuous excellent academic results in Malaysian national examinations.
As education is a hotly debated issue in many countries and there is a lot of criticisms going on pertaining to curriculum, syllabus and quality of education, it is imperative that society (both international and Malaysian) engages in open and honest discussions. While local communities have the full right to voice out their dissatisfaction and concerns, it is also important to hear from the perspectives of educators themselves.
Kamisah A.Aziz is currently the principal of Sekolah Tun Fatimah. Born in 1962, she has served as a teacher for approximately 30 years. She is originally from the state of Malacca.
Writer: You have been involved in the educational sector, both as a teacher and an administrator, for 30 years. What has been so far the greatest challenge you have encountered?
Kamisah: As a teacher, the biggest challenge is to fulfill the hopes and expectations of parents in making sure that their children perform well, not only in exams but other aspects of life. As a principal, the challenge is to close the gap and strengthen the relationship among teachers and school administrators so that all of us can work as a team to make great achievements and progress.
Writer: Do you think teachers are well understood and appreciated in society? If not, what are the possible reasons?
Kamisah: In my opinion, yes, society still shows appreciation to teachers. This is evident from a number of national awards reserved for teachers. We have ‘Teacher’s Day’ here and other kinds of recognitions, which are intended to further motivate and inspire teachers.
Recently, Yasmin Noorul Ain, a teacher from La Salle High School was listed as one of the 50 best teachers in the world by the Global Teacher Prize. We are very proud of that. Of course, I understand there is sometimes misunderstanding between society and teachers but we should all take it positively.
Writer: What are the additional challenges in female education and in running a girls' school?
Kamisah: Alhamdulillah, so far there has not been any difficulty, which is too extra-ordinary or beyond control. I always believe in, and use the approach of ‘touching the heart.’ What’s important is to embrace wisdom and compassion, the two main elements, which teachers and school administrators should adhere to.
I regard the students here as my children and they comfortably address me as ‘Bonda’ (mother), to compensate for the absence of their parents. Running a full boarding school is definitely not easy though. There are always problems and impediments. It takes a high level of patience and commitment, especially because you have to really give time to the students even after working hours.
Writer: Many people claim that many young teachers today teach because they have no better career opportunities, not because they want to teach. What are the repercussions of having such reluctant teachers? What is your advice to those teachers?
Kamisah: This phenomenon cannot be denied. It is true that some of the young teachers venture into educational institutions because they have to, or this is their last option. This is part of the challenges that we, the administrators face.
There is a special training scheme called ‘Training in Service’ (Latihan Dalam Perkhidmatan) in which we continuously plan different programs to develop the minds and nurture the interests on these young teachers. I try my best to grab every opportunity and utilize whatever resources available to get involved in activities intended for their development.
One example is during our regular official meeting or school ceremony, we reserve a special slot for the young teachers where we explain to them the noble visions of the school, their civic responsibilities and what the nation and parents expect from them. The school puts a lot of effort, often in collaboration with officers at the district, state and ministry levels to organize training programs for young teachers to enhance their competency.
I always advise the young teachers to carry out their duties with utmost sincerity and dedication, and to view their teaching job as an opportunity for them to perform good deeds and increase their merits. It is crucial to remind them that the responsibilities they carry as teachers are highly noble and respected.
Writer: Many in the west still believe that Islam does not encourage female education. As a long-time educational practitioner and as the Head Teacher of one of the most prestigious all-girl boarding schools in Malaysia, what will be your response to this charge?
Kamisah: To answer this, I draw your attention to a Quranic verse ‘Verily Allah has heard the statement of the woman who disputed with you concerning her husband and complained to Allah. And Allah hears the argument between you both. Indeed, Allah is All-Hearer, All-Seer.’ (Qur’an 85:1)
The verse was revealed after a woman came to the Prophet and complained to him about her husband. The chapter ended with God revealing verses directly to answer the woman’s plea and question.
This wonderful story implies that Islam acknowledges every woman’s right to speak her mind, debate and question, even when the argument or complaint is directed at the Prophet (pbuh) himself. No one has the right to tell a woman to be silent, or that her desire to know something should be suppressed.
A woman is also not obliged to regard her husband as her only source of reference. Interestingly, this is in contrast with the attitude adopted by Christianity as taught by St. Paul, which mentions the following:
“As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (NRSV, 1 Corinthians 14:33-35)
Writer: What is your definition of success?
Kamisah: Every human dreams of success, in this world and life hereafter. True success comes with the help and blessing of God. Success is to live in a rightful manner, gain the correct understanding of life and our higher purpose, and to ultimately obtain the pleasure and approval of our Creator.
Happiness and success do not lie in the materialistic possessions of an individual: his amount of wealth, his number of children, his household income, his posh dwelling, his position at workplace and the expensive clothes that he puts on. What matters more is how he makes use of what he owns; where his money goes to and what he spends on. If he is able to conquer his worldly desires and give all that he has been blessed with, back in the right cause, that is true success.
Writer: What are the pros and cons of co-education? Do you think single-sex education is better? Why?
Kamisah: The advantage of co-education is that we can teach and train students how to interact with the opposite sex in a healthy manner. No doubt, male students need to learn how to respect and treat their female counterparts, while at the same time respecting the boundaries.
The same goes to female students. It is important that they know their rights, are able to interact with dignity and protect themselves from possible exploitation. Students must be made aware of the dangers of excessive and unrestricted mingling as that can be a precursor to moral compromise.
In my humble opinion however, single-sex education is better for several reasons. First, at this vulnerable age, teenagers need to be protected from the threats of unhealthy and risky relationships, which can affect their academic performance and future.
It’s enough that we have the mass media and all sorts of technologies which have been exposing the youngsters to many harmful materials. Single sex-education does not necessarily mean that youths will lack social skills as argued by some people. Many studies have shown that it does not impede the ability of a student to skillfully interact with the opposite sex; instead it enhances academic performance as students are found to have a higher degree of focus in the absence of the opposite gender.
Writer: There are many teachers who confine their teaching activities to provision of mere facts and figures, but do not emphasize character building, values and ethics. How do you think this practice can be changed?
Kamisah: The duty and position of a teacher should be seen from a bigger perspective; that is he or she is not only a teacher by the formal definition but an individual who has a set of obligations in this world and will be held accountable by God. Knowledge in turn, is not confined to that of this materialistic world.
Every student deserves to know that true and real knowledge is endless and infinite, as it belongs ultimately to God. Therefore, it is absurd to claim that religious or moral issues should not interfere with educational curriculum. To change this culture of equating education with dry facts and figures, teachers ought to be properly trained, and equipped with a more holistic teaching perspective. Understanding the higher purpose in life and morality is crucial for them.
Writer: In your opinion, what is the biggest weakness in our current education system, especially at primary and secondary levels?
Kamisah: Too much emphasis on formal examinations. This leads to a culture of memorizing (without fully understanding) and heavy dependence of intensive exercise questions.
Some teachers only convey what is within the syllabus, even when the higher goals of the subject are unfulfilled. Some even sacrificed topics which they find too difficult to teach; they go for a limited number of topics which are likely to appear in exams, so that students can at least pass.
Recently, the concept of ‘Higher Order Thinking Skills’ (Kemahiran Berfikir Aras Tinggi) was introduced into the national curriculum with the aim of increasing students’ competency. Some subjects have been modified, so that emphasis is on understanding concepts rather than merely remembering facts.
The examination system has undergone changes as well; it is now ‘School-based assessment’ (Pentaksiran Berasaskan Sekolah). I find this more relevant in preparing our students to compete at a global level.
Writer: What is your greatest hope as an educator?
Kamisah: To produce students who possess self-esteem, a strong identity, high moral values, a clear vision, and meaningful life goals. They must have the wisdom and skills to lead mankind to a prosperous life as ordained by God, convey the divine message with compassion, and make this world a better place to live.