Are we educating Muslims or cowards?


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Alija Izetbegović (1925-2003)

October 1971, The Preporod (Renaissance) newspapers, Sarajevo

Translator’s note: This short essay, written by the first President of the independent Bosnia and Herzegovina and a well-known Muslim thinker, is as relevant today as it was when it was first published. Even though it bears the imprint of its time, at the beginning of the 20th-century Islamic revival in Bosnia, it talks about the many persisting problems in Islamic education. Under the communist rule in Yugoslavia, as under the oppressive regimes in most Muslim-majority countries today, religious education – when it was allowed – was meant to inculcate obedience to the authorities. It created generations of Muslims that are docile, subservient, and incapable of changing the miserable conditions under which many of them live today. This essay is a wake-up call to Muslim parents, teachers, and all those who wish to see Muslims liberating themselves from the yoke of oppression. 

I imagine this article as a small conversation with our parents and religious teachers. Not too long ago, I found a close friend of mine, who is a good and excitable Muslim, was writing an article about the education of the Muslim youth. I read the unfinished article but its main ideas were already expressed. Having insisted on education in the spirit of the faith, my friend called unto parents to inculcate in their children the characteristics of goodness, good behavior, humbleness, humility, benevolence, forgiveness, acceptance of fate, patience, etc. He especially warned the parents to protect the kids from the street, from Western and thriller movies, useless print press, sports that stimulate aggressiveness and competition, and so on. The most often used word in my friend’s article, however, was the word obedience. At home, a child should be obedient to the parents, in religious school (maktab) to the Imam, in school to the teacher, in the street to the policeman, and in the future to his boss, director, or the superior.

To illustrate this “ideal,” the writer uses an example of a boy who stays away from everything bad, who never fights in the streets, who does not watch Western movies (instead he takes classical piano lessons), does not play soccer, does not have a long hair, does not date girls (his parents will marry him “when the time comes”). The boy never yells, his voice is never heard (“as if he is not alive”), he is grateful and apologetic everywhere he goes. The writer does not say it, but we can continue: when the boy is wronged, he keeps quiet. When he is hit, he does not return in kind but instead convinces others that “it’s not alright.” In one word, he is from among those who would not as much as “step on an ant.”

While reading this article, I understood fully the meaning of the saying, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Not only that, I think I have grasped one of the causes of our decline in the last few centuries: the wrong education/upbringing. In fact, for centuries, as a consequence of misunderstanding of the original Islamic thought, we educate our youth wrongly. While the enemy, educated and merciless, subjugated Muslim countries one by one, we taught our youth to be nice, to “not think ill even of a fly,” to accept their fate, to be docile, and to be obedient to every type of rule for “every rule is from God.”

This sad philosophy of subservience, whose real origin I do not know but which, for sure, does not originate in Islam, serves two functions which complement each other perfectly and unhappily: on the one hand, it renders the alive dead; on the other, it highlights wrong ideals in the name of faith. It gathers around the idea of Islam those who have died before they have even started living. It creates insecure people out of normal human creatures, who are persecuted by the feelings of self-guilt and sin. This philosophy becomes attractive to those failed creatures who run away from reality and seek refuge in passivity and solace. It is only thus that we can explain the fact that even today, during the era of the revival, the very carriers of Islamic thought, or those who claim to be such, keep losing battles at every turn. Their hands tied with the philosophy of prohibitions and dilemmas, these people, who are in general of high morals, end up being inferior or unfit in the conflict with less upright, less cultured, but resolute and reckless enemies who know what they want and who do not care about the means to get to their goals.

What could be more normal than for the Muslim people to be led by the leaders who are educated in Islam and inspired by Islamic thought? But they are not being successful due to a simple reason: they have been educated not to lead, but to be led. What could be more natural than for Muslims, in Muslim lands, to be leaders of the revolt against the rule of the foreigners, and their ideas, their political and economic violence? But they cannot do that, again for a simple reason: they have not been taught to raise their voice but to obey. We have educated (and gathered) not Muslims but cowards, almost servants. In a world that is filled with vices, slavery, and injustice, to teach the young people to abstain, to be passive, to be obedient – is not that collaboration in the subjugation and oppression of one’s people?

This psychology that we are writing about has several aspects. One of these is the ever-recurring story about the past. Our youth are not taught what Islam should be. Instead, they are taught about what it used to be. They know about the Alhambra and old conquests, about the city of “one thousand and one nights,” about the libraries in Samarqand and Cordoba. Their spirit is always oriented toward the glorious past and they start living off it. The past is important, of course. But it is much more useful to repair the worn-out roof of a simple mosque in one’s street than to count all the beautiful mosques that were built by our illustrious predecessors. It seems that it would be better to burn all that glorious history if it is becoming a refuge for sighs and for living on the memories. It would be better to destroy all those monuments if that is a pre-condition for finally understanding that we cannot live off the past and that it is required that we do something [about our present]. Paradoxically, this fatal pedagogy of subservience and lack of resistance refers to the Qur’an, in which the principles of struggle and resistance have been mentioned at least fifty times. As a code, the Qur’an abolished subservience. Instead of subservience to multiple false authorities and majesties, the Qur’an established only one obedience – to God. On this obedience to God, the Qur’an built human freedom, the human’s liberation from all other forms of subservience and fear.

What, then, can we advise our parents and teachers?

More than anything else, we can tell them not to kill the energy in young people. Rather, let them guide and shape our youth. The eunuch they created through their education is not a Muslim, nor is there a way to lead a dead person to Islam. To educate a Muslim, let them educate humans, most completely and comprehensively. Let the teachers talk to the youth about pride instead of humility, about courage instead of obedience, about justice instead of benevolence. Let them raise a dignified generation that will know not to ask for anyone’s permission to live and to be what it is. For let us remember: the progress of Islam – just like any other progress – will not come from the docile and the subservient, but the courageous and the rebellious. (




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